R.J. Parrilla couldn't have asked for a better freshman year of college.
Last fall, Parrilla earned a spot in the starting lineup for the Babson College men's soccer team, a highly successful program that has secured 19 NCAA Division III tournament berths and won three national titles in its history.
An outside back, he helped the Beavers to a 14-6-2 record and the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) championship, their eighth, which locked up an automatic NCAA bid.
And during the season, he had a goal and an assist for his first career points.
Oh, yeah. He also got good grades.
"It was amazing," Parrilla, a 2019 Stonington High graduate, said. "It was great even to be able to get out there and play — it's such a great group of guys. It was great to meet them, make new friends and the traveling was awesome. Playing at Coast Guard and having people from Stonington come, traveling for the NCAAs — it was so much fun. It was awesome. Just a great experience."
Experience was something Parrilla had plenty of at Stonington High, be it on the pitch, court, field or course. He was a four-year varsity player for the soccer and basketball teams, earning All-State and All-New England honors in soccer as a defender his senior year, when the Bears reached the state semifinals. He also played three years of varsity baseball and one of golf.
So starting as a freshman was old hat for Parrilla. But doing so at the next level? In college? That takes talent and maturity, and it's not easy.
"I just showed up the first day with the goal of getting playing time," Parrilla said. "I played as a sub the first three games, and the fourth game [I started and] I just had to run with it and keep that spot as long as I could."
The 5-11, 165-pound Parrilla ended up starting the final 19 games for the Beavers, despite a "difficult transition" to playing outside back (he played center back at Stonington).
That transition was made all the more difficult due to the size and speed of players at the collegiate level.
"It's definitely a faster game than in high school," Parrilla said. "And it's a very physical game. You're 18 and you're playing against guys 20, 22, and you're getting used to kids that are physically larger. It's also a very possession-based game."
Parrilla'a eyes were truly opened to what the college game has to offer during a midseason showdown against Tufts. At the time, the Jumbos were the defending D-III national champions (and would go on to win it all again), were ranked No. 1 in the country and entered the contest at Babson's Hartwell-Rogers Field with a 30-game unbeaten streak.
Babson ended up pulling off a stunning upset, 2-0, in the nonconference game.
"It was my first time against really elite college players, elite college forwards," Parrilla said. "And getting a taste of what they're all about was definitely a wake-up call. It was like, 'whoa.' We won the game but we took a beating by playing defense 85 percent of the time. But winning that game just gave us the confidence that we could accomplish so much as a team."
For Parrilla, the accomplishments included scoring his first goal — something he was unable to do until he was a senior at Stonington, he noted. It came in a 6-0 rout of New England College on Sept. 25.
"Getting one early was good," Parrilla said. "It was good to get that off my chest."
But of course, the highlight of the season was winning the NEWMAC title. Second-seeded Babson upset the No. 1 seed, host WPI, in the championship game 1-0. The goal came with just three seconds left in double overtime.
The game-winning play started with Parrilla gaining possession of the ball and ended with senior Alex Crompton scoring on a bicycle kick.
"Just to win it like that and to not give up a goal in that game was a great accomplishment," Parrilla said.
Babson later fell to SUNY Oneonta in overtime in the first round of the NCAAs, 3-2.
Parrilla, a finance major whose grade-point average was better than 3.3, has been home since early March because of the coronavirus pandemic. He's been working at Home Depot and began an internship program at General Dynamics Electric Boat over the weekend.
And he's been getting ready for next season. His goals?
"To definitely get as much time on the field as I can, and to make an impact on the team — be a positive influence from the back going forward," he said. "And to win the NEWMAC regular season and tournament, and to go farther in the NCAAs — that will always be a dream. And to keep my grades up in school. That will be my No. 1 priority."