As a youngster, Evan Conway regularly sat in the stands at Engelmann Stadium watching the Milwaukee Panthers men’s soccer team play, hoping one day he’d get a chance to suit up in the black and gold and compete on Laura Moynihan Field.

That dream soon became a reality. During the last two years of his prep career, Conway played for Whitefish Bay High School and the Bavarian Soccer Club. He led Bay to a WIAA Division 2 state championship and earned All-State honors as a senior in 2015.

Conway decided to continue his education and soccer career at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he made an instant impact as a freshman in 2016.

An attacking forward, Conway led Milwaukee with six goals and a tied for a team-high 15 points in the regular season on his way to being selected Horizon League Freshman of the Year and named to the All-Freshman Team.

“It was a goal of mine from the start of the year,” Conway said. “It’s just nice to be recognized for the hard work I put in this season.”

The season conference awards were announced Nov. 7, Conway’s birthday. Milwaukee also beat Valparaiso in the first round of the conference tournament to keep its season alive that same night. This made the personal recognition even more special.

“It is definitely a big deal because it is a team effort,” Conway said. “It has been a team effort the entire year. We’ve had some good wins, and it’s nice to have a good team around you to support you and make you better.”

Conway’s experience playing club soccer for the Bavarians made his transition to the college game a smooth one. With the Bavarians, Conway was coached by Panthers head coach Kris Kelderman.

That familiarity allowed Kelderman to push Conway and hold him to higher standards as a freshman with Milwaukee this year.

“I was excited about him coming to play for me at UWM,” Kelderman said. “I at least knew he had the ability to deliver pretty quickly; he’s that special. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a young guy, but I knew what he was capable of. I tried having high expectations from the beginning to push him immediately. He certainly delivered.”

Kelderman credits Conway’s ability around the net as a major reason why he’s made an outstanding first impression for the Panthers this season.

“He reads the game really well,” Kelderman said. “It’s timing and how he anticipates the next play, his feel for where the defenders are going to be and not going to be ... that’s a trait you can’t teach. It comes with experience and somebody who knows and plays the game a lot. It’s just a very special trait. He also deals with pressure well.”

Although his final numbers stand out for a freshman, his transition from high school soccer to the college game wasn’t as easy as it looked. One area Conway struggled to adjust to early on was the speed of play.

“I use to have a lot of time where I could make a lot of decisions,” Conway said. “I just didn’t have that anymore. It took me awhile to realize that and adjust to that and play quicker.”

Milwaukee’s season came to an end on Nov. 10, when it was knocked out of the conference tournament with an overtime loss to the University of Illinois at Chicago in the semifinal match.

Predicted sixth in the preseason poll, the Panthers finished tied for second in the regular season, despite starting seven freshmen on a regular basis and dealing with injuries. The Panthers return their entire roster next season, and Conway will once again have high expectations after his freshman campaign.

Kelderman knows Conway has a promising future but wants him to continue to improve in certain areas so he’s even better next year.

“He’s a young guy, and he likes to take risks,” Kelderman said. “A part of that is what makes him special, but the challenging part for that is taking chances at the right time. Sometimes I just have to pull the strings on him a little bit and say, ‘Hey, you know you can’t just go, go, go all the time and try to make something happen in every play you’re involved in.’ Just playing a little safer and be a little bit more patient.

“He knows there are areas he needs to get better at, and that’s what we are helping him work on every day. He’s certainly done a heck of a job this year.”