By JOE FERRARO
Keoni Yates was still recovering from a football injury when he got the news. But there was no way the Kealakehe junior would pass up the chance to earn a special title: best of the best.
Yates will play in the midfield for a 17-and-under Region IV boys soccer team at the U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program Boys Interregional, which begins Friday and runs through Sunday at Sicard Hollow Athletic Complex in Birmingham, Ala.
Yates’s Region IV team will play matches against three other regional teams in round-robin competition. National ODP coaches are expected to pick a 22-member 17-and-under national team from the pool of 72 players in Alabama by the end of the month.
According to Kealakehe coach Urs Leuenberger, Yates is the first Big Island player to earn a spot at an ODP interregional.
“I was kind of surprised, but at the same time I was excited and happy I did make it,’’ Yates said of landing on the Region IV team.
When ODP officials notified Yates of his selection in early November via email, the junior’s right knee was slowly approaching full strength. Less than two months earlier, he tore the posterior cruciate ligament in the knee after catching a pass and landing awkwardly on the turf at Waverider Stadium.
Bypassing the trip to Alabama was never an option for Yates, who estimated being 85 percent healthy on Tuesday.
“I was definitely confident that I would be ready and prepared for this trip,’’ said Yates, who has played in six high school matches this season.
The Kealakehe junior is the only Hawaii player on the 18-member Region IV team, which has representatives from California, Colorado, Montana, Utah, Nevada and Idaho.
Yates, a state ODP player for the past five years and a team captain for the past two, earned his Region IV roster spot by advancing through two regional ODP tryouts. He received an invitation for the first one, which took place in McMinnville, Ore., in early July and featured approximately 200 players from 12 states.
Yates was one of 30 players who attended a late July ODP tryout in Ontario, Calif., where he and 17 others earned their Region IV team spots.
In Alabama, Yates has a chance to take one more giant step on youth soccer’s ladder of elite players.
“(Making the national team) would just show the hard work and dedication – from my family and I and my teammates – has definitely paid off,’’ Yates said.
At the age of 8, Leuenberger said, Yates already possessed strong soccer skills, holding his own in recreational adult soccer matches at Old Kona Airport Park.
“He had quickness, speed, strength, intelligence in approaching the game, ball skills,’’ Leuenberger said. “At a young age, he was pretty good at all these things.”
Remembering that Yates was competing against players 2 feet taller and 100 pounds heavier, Leuenberger stressed other intangibles that have set Yates apart from others: fearlessness and a love for soccer.
“Sometimes you run him over, and he bounces back up,’’ Leuenberger said. “He would not think twice about dribbling against anybody down there.
“He would love to play. He never had a second thought about what was going to happen. He was a gutsy, gutsy kid.”
If he doesn’t make the national team, Yates said he will still leave Alabama having soaked up a wealth of soccer knowledge. The junior midfielder will take in the NCAA men’s soccer semifinals and final at the College Cup, which takes place Friday and Sunday in Hoover, Ala.
Yates, who scored 13 goals for a Kealakehe team that won the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I title last season, will also play in front of several college coaches and recruiters at the event.
“It will definitely open my eyes to different views (of the game) and a high level of play,’’ he said.