April 12, 2018

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — By the end of his sophomore year at his New York City public high school, Henry Kessler was ready for college. Literally.

That’s the path students follow at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan. Kessler and his classmates completed their high school requirements in two years. As juniors and seniors, they took college courses. Kessler graduated not only with a high school diploma, but with an associate’s degree from Bard College.

In January 2017, Kessler enrolled as a first-year student at the University of Virginia, already well on his way to a bachelor’s degree.

“It’s pretty unusual,” said Dan Jacobs, academic coordinator for the UVA men’s soccer team, on which Kessler is a rising sophomore.

Kessler, who’s from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, stands 6-4 and weighs only 180 pounds. At first glance, he can appear too gangly to be a formidable soccer player. Don’t be deceived.

“He moves as well as anybody on our team,” Virginia head coach George Gelnovatch said. “He’s tough as nails, and he’s smart as hell on the field and off the field. He doesn’t make the same mistake twice.”

As a freshman last season, Kessler was a reserve back on a UVA team that finished 12-4-5 after losing in the NCAA tournament’s second round. He appeared in 12 games and played a total of 363 minutes.

“Soccer-wise, I was OK. I think I was ready,” Kessler said of his first year at UVA. “School-wise, I was definitely prepared.”

He’s earned a starting job in the Cavaliers’ three-man backline this spring. With Sergi Nus, a third-team All-ACC pick last fall, recovering from an injury, Kessler has been playing center back. When Nus returns this summer, Kessler will move to left center back. Never mind that he’s right-footed.

“His left foot’s fantastic,” Gelnovatch said.

Along with Clemson, Duke, North Carolina, Georgetown and Wake Forest, Virginia is competing in the inaugural U.S. Soccer Spring Program, an initiative started by U.S. Soccer. Two games remain for the Wahoos this spring, one of them at Klöckner Stadium.

At 1 p.m. Sunday, Virginia will host Clemson. UVA, whose captains are Joe Bell and Robin Afamefuna, is 1-2 in the U.S. Soccer Spring Program, but player development is more important than results to Gelnovatch this time of year.

Unproven players such as Kessler, Colin Shutler, Kennedy Nwabia, Irakoze Donasiyano, Justin Ingram, Aaron James and Raheem Taylor-Parkes are gaining valuable experience this spring.

“From the developmental standpoint, check that box,” Gelnovatch said. “It’s been really, really good.”

Virginia, which lost to Georgetown on March 17 in Charlottesville, won at Duke on March 24. UVA lost 2-1 to UNC in Chapel Hill last weekend, but Gelnovatch was pleased with many aspects of his team’s performance, especially in the first half.

For Kessler, who scored the Cavaliers’ goal against the Tar Heels on a header, this is this first experience at center back in college, and he’s “out of his comfort zone,” Gelnovatch said.

“There’s a little bit more ball-handling. Instead of the 2-guard you’re the 1-guard,” Gelnovatch said, using a basketball analogy. “It’s different, and I think he needed to experience that. It’s going to make him better. He has been kind of thrust into that position and is developing and doing quite well.

“The Georgetown game was not a good game for him. His response since then, in the Duke game and UNC game, has been phenomenal.”

Kessler, who has three siblings, grew up in a family of athletes. His mother played lacrosse at Villanova, and his father played football and lacrosse at Harvard.

Academics were stressed in the Kessler household — one of Henry’s sisters graduated from Harvard and the other will graduate from the University of Southern California next month — but there was plenty of time for play, too.

Kessler joined a soccer club when he was about 7 and progressed rapidly in the sport. But his career stalled when he was a junior in high school and playing in the New York Red Bulls Academy. He was welcome to continue to train in the Red Bulls’ program, his coaches said, but they told him not to expect playing time.

“The three previous years I was on the team, I played every minute,” Kessler recalled, “so I don’t know what happened. But clearly they didn’t think I was good enough.”

The lack of exposure hurt his chances of achieving his goal of playing for a high-major Division I team in college, and so Kessler switched to another U.S. Soccer Development Academy, Beachside SC in Connecticut.

He thrived with Beachside, and Gelnovatch first saw Kessler play at a showcase event in December 2015.

“I was there watching somebody else, and Henry kept getting my attention,” Gelnovatch recalled.

The more he watched Kessler, the more interested Gelnovatch grew. “Athletically, he moved well, and I could tell he was smart on the field. Just sound. I just got a good feeling about him.”

The Cavaliers invited Kessler to attend a camp in Charlottesville during the upcoming holiday break, and “he was the best player there,” Gelnovatch said.

“I came to a camp, played well at the camp, and then they made an offer,” Kessler said. “It was that easy.”

He’d planned on taking a gap year in 2016-17, after graduating from Bard, to hone his soccer skills and raise his college stock. With a scholarship offer from UVA in hand, Kessler opted to take what he calls a “gap semester.”

He trained and played for Beachside in the fall of 2016, and then he enrolled at UVA in January 2017.

“It worked out well, for sure,” Kessler said.

Coming in midyear was tough for him initially, Kessler said, not so much in soccer, “but socially, because everyone already had friends. But my best friend on the team, Joe [Bell], he came in the middle of the year, too, so that helped.”

Bell, who’s from New Zealand, is not the only international player on the Cavaliers’ roster. Also represented in the program are Spain, Nigeria, England, Australia, Mexico, Germany and Ivory Coast.

“It just goes to show, soccer’s such a world-renowned sport,” Kessler said.

Kessler has yet to declare a major, but he may end up in Media Studies.

“He’s got options, just based on [the college credits he earned in high school], and he’s a strong student,” said Jacobs, his academic coordinator.

“He’s definitely a self-starter. He’s got his nose to the grindstone, but he’s got a lot of personality, too. He’s charismatic, and he’s passionate.”

He’s also a gifted soccer player. For Kessler, it’s a winning combination.

“He’s a really intelligent guy, but he’s actually super intense [on the field],” Gelnovatch said. “I love it.”