Huntley forward Niko Mihalopoulos needed little time to fall in love with the game of soccer.
Introduced to the sport by his father, George, when he was about 5 years old, there was no complex reason as to how Mihalopoulos became enamored. As Mihalopoulos simply explained it, soccer was so much fun to play he didn’t want to stop.
Mihalopoulos’ passion hasn’t wavered. Combined with his physical skills, Mihalopoulos became a nightmare for opposing coaches. Even when man marked, Mihalopoulos still could find the back of the net. He finished the season with 27 goals, tying the school record set in 2007 by Niko Carbonara, and 10 assists.
For his performance this season and helping Huntley finish 21-3-1, Mihalopoulos is the Northwest Herald Player of the Year.
“This season I felt the best I ever had throughout my four years of high school, and I enjoyed it a lot,” Mihalopoulos said. “Plus I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the teammates around me. [They] are very good players, very gifted players.”
Mihalopoulos’ standout season nearly didn’t happen. The senior forward spent approximately two months in Germany during the summer at an academy, VFR Aalen, which is located near Stuttgart, with hopes of being signed to play professionally in Europe. Mihalopoulos described the training as very intense and said he learned a lot about himself by being in Germany alone.
He had hoped to stay there but discovered he didn’t have the necessary player pass so he could play in actual games instead of only participating in training. To get one, his parents, George and Sophia, had to live in Germany because Mihalopoulos was under 18. Since it wasn’t realistic for his parents to immediately move to Germany, Mihalopoulos decided to come back to Huntley and finish his senior year.
Mihalopoulos doesn’t regret the experience and credits it for helping him become a better player.
“I became mentally strong, confident and it helped me a lot when I came back here,” Mihalopoulos said. “I didn’t really fear anything.”
Mihalopoulos considers himself a playmaker and he certainly made plenty of plays for Huntley. His production this season didn't surprise Red Raiders coach Kris Grabner. Grabner said Mihalopoulos’ physical attributes – very strong, low center of gravity and speed on and off the ball – are a unique skill set that helped make him such a dynamic player.
“To see it in person, you kind of sit there in awe and just, wow, that’s strength,” Grabner said of his ability to break tackles. “You add to that an incredible touch on the ball with all parts of the body. It doesn’t matter where you hit the ball to him, he’s going to handle it the majority of the time.”
With his high school career over, Mihalopoulos plans to continue competing with his club team, Arsenal Heat United, and play in college or return overseas to play. The impact Mihalopoulos and his fellow seniors leave on the program is one that Grabner isn't overlooking. Grabner said they would often get together to play whether it was an hour before practice on a Saturday morning or a random pickup game.
"When you do something because you just like to do it, you're so much better at it," Grabner said. "I think that's the biggest thing all those guys leave our program."
While Huntley’s season ended with a tough loss in the regional final, “a great story with a sad ending,” Mihalopoulos smiled as he reflected on his career.
“I’m going to look at every year positively,” Mihalopoulos said. “ … This team we had, we’ve all played together for a long time, since we were little kids. We all know each other really well. The chemistry was so good we knew each other, our strengths, weaknesses and what our next move was going to be on the field.”