Derek MacKinnon, Eddie McCusker, and Lou Vilotti have been best friends for over a decade.
And they met, of course, through soccer.
The Sewell, N.J. trio developed its friendship on the pitch, as McCusker and Vilotti were introduced on the U-8 travel circuit and MacKinnon was added to the crew for U-10s. The group then joined the top club in New Jersey in the Washington United Lightning, a nationally-ranked program packed with South Jersey talent for which the boys would play over the next eight years.
The boys lived within five minutes of one another, with McCusker’s house splitting the difference, and went through the Washington Township Public School District, beginning in separate elementary schools before McCusker and MacKinnon found themselves in the same middle school. Vilotti linked up with them at Washington Township High School.
“We hung out outside of soccer growing up, but having high school soccer brought us closer together,” said McCusker. “Once we hit high school, we hung out all the time.”
By the start of their sophomore seasons at WTHS, all three of their faces were permanent on the varsity roster. Fast forward to a junior season in which they led the Minutemen to a then-school record 22 wins, and it was time to start considering where those faces would fit outside of the WTHS walls. The South Jersey Soccer Coaches Association's 2013 All-South Jersey Defender of the Year (McCusker), Midfielder of the Year (Vilotti), and Offensive Player of the Year (MacKinnon) had decisions to make.
Heavily recruited by head coach Don D'Ambra to fill an open role as center back for the Crimson and Gray, McCusker went first, committing to D'Ambra's program in Winter 2014.
After turning in a junior season in which he proved himself to be one of the top midfielders in the state with 14 goals, five coming in WTHS’s run to its first SJSCA Tournament title, and a state-leading 21 assists, Vilotti followed McCusker with his commitment to the Hawks in Spring 2014.
"It 100 percent helped in making my decision, knowing that he would be there with me,” said Vilotti of McCusker’s commitment. “We had talked about coming here and trying to change a program and leave it better than how we had received it, and he was definitely a huge impact on me.”
With McCusker and Vilotti both set for the 45-minute drive up I-676, MacKinnon’s decision was all but made. A National Soccer Coaches Association of America All-American after obliterating WTHS’s record books with 28 goals in his junior season, including eight in the SJSCA Tournament, MacKinnon had options. He went with his heart.
“When you see two of your best friends commit to the same school and see everything else also fit, it’s really hard to say no,” said MacKinnon, who verbally committed on June 20 of the summer before his senior year to complete the Minuteman trio of future Hawks.
With one of the biggest decisions of their lives made, MacKinnon, McCusker, and Vilotti were able to enter their final high school seasons focused on their collective goal – winning the state championship for the first time in school history.
"The weight was off our shoulders and we were able to focus on winning that state championship,” said McCusker. “That alone brought us together even more.”
The Minutemen went 26-1 that season, and the trio capped off a phenomenal high school career by leading WTHS to the 2014 Group IV State Championship title. It was a fairy-tale end to a historic season; MacKinnon came up huge down the stretch with multiple clutch goals in the postseason, Vilotti had the game-winning assist in WTHS’ 1-0 win over Scotch Plains-Fanwood in the state championship match, and McCusker led the Minuteman defense, highlighted by a remarkable, shut-out effort in the state championship match.
By the end of that 2014 season, Washington Township was ranked second in the nation and first among all public schools. All three boys earned All-State honors, while MacKinnon and Vilotti were tabbed NSCAA All-Americans and Regional All-American McCusker was named the SJSCA South Jersey Defender of the Year for the second season in a row.
The fairytale movie had come to an end.
And then the sequel came out.
In August of 2015, a couple of guys from South Jersey stepped onto Hawk Hill. They were new. They were freshmen.
But they weren’t alone.
“We were fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to play together throughout our childhood and to get another chance to play together... I think it’s pretty fascinating when you think about it like that,” said McCusker. “It’s a special case. Not everyone gets that experience.”
“There was definitely a sense of comfort going into our freshman year,” added MacKinnon. “When there were things that weren’t going well, at least there were two of us that we could go to. When one of us wasn’t having a good day, the other two could listen and cheer up that person. We all lived in the same room our freshman year, so we’d talk all the time.”
It didn’t take long for the trio to earn playing time. Vilotti saw 20 minutes off the bench in the 2015 season opener against Marist before McCusker got a taste of the back line in the following match against Rider.
MacKinnon made his collegiate debut in SJU’s third contest of the season, subbing into the UNLV road match in the 23rd minute alongside two other Hawks... McCusker and Vilotti.
“That was a pretty cool moment,” reflected Vilotti of all three former-Minutemen-turned-Hawks entering the match side-by-side.
The Saint Joseph’s men’s soccer program struggled over the trio’s first few years, but MacKinnon, McCusker, and Vilotti approached the situation as they had approached every soccer situation since they were kids – together.
“Looking back, the first couple of seasons were rough because we weren’t winning that many games,” said Vilotti. “It was just a lot easier having these two guys. Transitioning into college was easier, and having them there to talk to about the seasons helped a lot, too.”
“[Our familiarity] helped add to the locker room culture,” added McCusker. “We weren’t winning games, but that togetherness and that comfort helped, especially with other guys coming in, to see that in the locker room.”
MacKinnon, McCusker, and Vilotti continued to demonstrate their individual talents over the course of their freshman, sophomore and junior seasons. Forward MacKinnon and defender McCusker earned starting spots by SJU’s fourth match of their freshman seasons, at Utah Valley, and never looked back while midfielder Vilotti has remained one of D’Ambra’s top choices off the bench over his career.
With three more regular-season matches to play, two-year team captain McCusker leads all active Hawks in career minutes (6,022)...
...while MacKinnon is among the team's leaders in career points (23).
Vilotti, who captains the squad with McCusker, worked his way back from injury to remain an integral part of SJU’s midfield this year and last.
And now, the trio has led the Hawks to eight wins this season, the most since they stepped foot on Hawk Hill, and to six wins at home, the program’s most since 2003.
Achieving this together only makes it better.
“Sometimes when you’re out on the field, you do get a sense of excitement, because you’re having fun and your buddies are on the field with you,” said MacKinnon.