JONESBORO — Ron Teat says Josh Nwokeji made a greater impact this season than any other freshman he’s had in 13 years as boys’ soccer coach at Valley View.
Part of that, Teat acknowledged, has to do with the Blazers rarely having to count on freshmen so heavily, but it also reflected the skills that made Nwokeji one of the key players for the Class 4A state champions.
“The thing that makes him special is he just has another gear that other players don’t have,” Teat said. “He has the ability during big moments to finish shots that other players might not be able to do. Every other coach, every other fan, when you watch him in the big moments, the important parts of the game, you can tell he is a special player and he has a special speed to his play.”
Nwokeji, the Best Under The Sun Newcomer of the Year, earned all-state and all-state tournament honors as he led a balanced Blazer attack with 26 points. He scored a team-high 12 goals, including a couple in key situations during some of Valley View’s biggest victories.
The Blazers did not lose in their final 19 games. Their run to the state title concluded with a 3-1 victory over De Queen, Nwokeji scoring a second-half goal to help them pull away from the Leopards.
“It was a lot of fun, just being with the older guys. I really think it pushed me to get my skills better from where I started,” Nwokeji said, reflecting on the season. “I think we had a lot of chemistry and that chemistry, along with Coach Teat bringing us a lot of games to play against better teams, that prepared us for the teams at state.”
Teat said Nwokeji gained his teammates’ full attention when he punched in a late goal against Jonesboro for a 1-0 victory in mid-March.
A couple months later, with the Blazers locked in a scoreless tie with Berryville in the 4A state quarterfinals, Nwokeji came through with another late goal off Brandon Southard’s assist to lift Valley View to a 1-0 victory.
“That was with less than two minutes left in the game and it was one of those games where we had all the momentum and we just couldn’t find a way to put the ball in the back of the net,” Teat said. “We had the most shots and they might have one or two that were on frame that gave you a little bit of a scare, and all of a sudden you’re looking at it with two minutes left going, ‘This is kind of a dogfight.’ Then all of a sudden he gets a pass and he puts it in the upper 90 and we’re able to win that game.”
Nwokeji was part of a deep rotation for the Blazers, who regularly used 17 players as they got ready for a state tournament run.
Teat made a tactical decision to bring Nwokeji off the bench, giving him an opportunity to change the speed of the game as a substitute before playing the rest of the time.
“I like that everybody got a good amount of playing time and we each contributed to the success of the team,” Nwokeji said. “It was fine for me.”
Teat said Nwokeji made a quick adjustment to the physical aspect of the high school game.
“Josh is not a big kid and being a ninth-grader, and not a physically big ninth-grader, he had to deal with a lot of players just being physical with him, whether it was fouls or whether it was clean,” Teat said. “He had to deal with the physical part of it and he figured that out, and not that it took him a long time. What makes him special, and it makes every great player no matter what sport you’re talking about, is it wasn’t about him. He cared more about what the team was doing versus what he was doing.”
Nwokeji is focusing on perfect shot placement while keeping in shape as he prepares to play for the Nashville SC Academy starting in August.
The opportunity to play for a Major League Soccer academy came about through a connection Lobos Rush, Nwokeji’s club team in Collierville, Tenn., had with Nashville SC and his tryout for the program.
“I’m very excited. This is a really good opportunity for me,” Nwokeji said. “I’d like to improve and get better, see what my future holds. At the same time, I’m a little bit sad for leaving my family, but it’s a good opportunity.”
Teat compared MLS soccer academies to prep football programs such as IMG Academy in Florida. The program’s website describes Nashville SC Academy as “playing at the highest level of youth soccer in the United States,” offering a pathway from youth to professional soccer.
Academy players are not able to play high school soccer, so Nwokeji will not suit up for the Blazers next spring.
“I think if you look at it and he was moving off to play for another school within the state, it would be a little bit different, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime deal. This is going to get him what he wants, and he’s a smart kid, too,” Teat said. “He’ll go to a good school or he’ll go play professionally in some form or fashion, or possibly both. I’m not naive enough to not understand that his route to some D-1 success or professional success would be better suited going this direction than staying at Valley View and playing with us.”