Few players of any sport get to pursue their collegiate athletic careers in their own back yards, much less in a league like the ACC.
Ara Amirkhanian is the exception. A local kid who grew up dreaming of playing for the home town Clemson men’s soccer program, he’s now doing exactly that as a junior midfielder/forward and one of the Tigers’ key attacking threats.
Having scored Clemson’s second goal in a 2-0 win over ACC-foe and 15th-ranked Virginia, Amirkhanian stood on historic Riggs Field following the match, and noted that his family home is in walking distance.
“I could run to my house right now,” said Amirkhanian, who played his prep soccer at nearby Daniel High, where he was an All-Region and All-State selection before officially stepping on campus three years ago. “I’ve been going to games here since I was five-years-old, and it’s always been my dream to play here. It’s amazing. I remember all of it, from watching Wolde Harris play in the late nineties, to that great team in the mid-2000s.”
Though a natural midfielder, Amirkhanian possesses attacking skills that have also served him well up-top. This season and through the Tiger’s perfect 4-0 start, he’s the team’s second-leading goal-scorer, and last season proved his nose for goal in big games by scoring game-winners against N.C. State and Virginia, and also netting against No. 2 Maryland in an ACC Tournament semifinal.
“Ara scores big goals at big times, and I’m just really proud of how he’s continued to progress as a player,” said Clemson coach Mike Noonan. “He puts himself in good positions, and every game he plays he gets better and better.
“It’s a great story. His dad was a professor here in the engineering department, and was one of the first people that I met when I got here. Ara’s story is pretty special, and I’m proud when he scores big goals, and I’m proud of his maturity. He’s a straight-A student, and he does a lot of really good things.”
A health science major who last year was named to the ACC Academic Honor Roll, Amirkhanian has been on-hand to experience Noonan’s overhaul and restoration of a once-dominant program that had fallen on hard times. By realizing a team-goal of getting off to a good start against strong competition, the Tigers recently climbed to No. 9 in the national rankings.
“One of our goals this season was to have a 4-0 start,” said Amirkhanian. “Going into other ACC games, we just need to concentrate on having that complete second-half, because we didn’t have a complete game against Virginia, and didn’t play that well in the second-half. So we’ll keep working on that, and if we have more complete games, we can take care of tough teams in the ACC.”
Beyond the fact of a high-profile recruiting class and an injection of talent, the difference for the Tigers as Amirkhanian sees it is in the team’s much-improved mentality.
“It’s strictly the mentality,” said Amirkhanian. “I mean we do have a strong freshman class, and better players, but the mentality is really the biggest thing. Everyone’s competing in practice and there’s more of a winning mentality on the field, so it’s a change in the story, and that’s our motto.
“In the past, the culture here hasn’t been very strong, but we’ve been changing that and getting everybody’s mind-set right with a strong mentality. There was a lot of fitness work this summer. It’s probably the most we’ve ever done. Our strength coach is working with us on a new program, and that’s been since the end of May. So that’s made a difference, especially. Plus, we’ve tried to incorporate our style of play coming off the spring.”
With respect to the recent facility upgrades at Riggs, the Tigers take pride in what Amirkhanian perceives as a very special playing environment
“Oh, my gosh, this is an incredible stadium,” he affirmed. “It’s probably one of the best in the country. I haven’t seen a better stadium for college soccer, so it’s an incredible venue, and it gives us motivation to protect this place. We haven’t done that in the past, so we want to leave a legacy of strong-minded individuals who can take care of business, and on Riggs, especially.”