There’s a conventional wisdom in soccer that argues to be really good at it, you have to start at a very young age.
Henry Clay’s Sota Ippongi and Tates Creek’s Ben Kaindu, two of the most dynamic players in Lexington, defy that logic.
“Me and Sota talk about it, like how all our (select club team) friends started at when they were like 3,” said Kaindu, who has been a first-team All-City player as a freshman, sophomore and junior and is good friends with his Blue Devils’ rival, last year’s co-city player of the year.
When some of those friends had already entered select team academies at ages 7, 8 and 9, Ippongi was still playing baseball and Kaindu was only being introduced to soccer in his elementary school gym class.
“My dad was a big soccer guy, but my family was more into baseball,” Sota said. His young relatives all played baseball.
In fifth and sixth grade (ages 10 and 11), that all changed.
That’s when Kaindu and Ippongi, who are now seniors, met on the soccer field for the first time in a church recreational league where they learned to love the game and began to put in the one thing that can help overcome any deficiency — hard work.
“My brothers played soccer, but I didn’t like soccer. I liked any other sport except that,” Kaindu said. “Then our school program had it, and it was fun. And I was good at it.”
Former Bryan Station soccer coach Daniel Hacker teaches P.E. at Arlington Elementary and uses soccer as one of his go-to games for class. He and one of his assistants, Joe Dallaire, began an after-school soccer program there.
Kaindu was among the kids who couldn’t get enough.
“Ben was just a gym rat. We practiced almost every day at that point,” Hacker said of the time when Kaindu was in fifth grade. “He just loved it, so he developed really fast. He learned his touch real quick and he’s a great speed dribbler. He was always really good at dribbling at speed.”
A member at Centenary United Methodist Church where the I Am Third recreational program is based, Hacker asked if he could bring his Arlington kids together to play as a team in the league.
By that time, Ippongi had been playing in I Am Third as well as a fifth-grader. And he and some others began standing out — so much so, that some folks with I Am Third thought of forming an “all-star” team.
Kaindu and Ippongi were among those on it. I Am Third set up a game against a local club team and beat them 8-0.
And an I Am Third “select” team was born. Another Hacker assistant at Station, Justin “JB” Bryant, volunteered to coach.
Among its players during its run were Bryan Station graduate Eddy Irumva and junior Ivan Nkinzo, former Frederick Douglass standout Dekel Crowdus, who’s regarded as one of the best football recruits in the nation, and Jean Claude Bikorimana, who this summer decided to forgo his high school career and play for FC Cincinnati Academy of the MLS.
“Ben and Sota were definitely two of our best players,” Bryant said. “They both had natural ability. But what really stood out for them … they really loved the game, and when they left practice, they didn’t just stop practicing.”
The next step
“I don’t go two days without touching the soccer ball, really,” Ippongi said. “During the summer I play soccer every day for like five hours and spend the afternoon coaching little kids. So, I’m always involved with soccer.”
As Bryant began coaching his young all-stars, he told them that in order to become really good at soccer, they had to work on it at home. It couldn’t be something they just did for an hour-and-a-half twice a week.
“They really took that to heart,” Bryant said. “With Sota and Ben, you could see marked improvements from a week-to-week basis. They were taking the skills we were teaching them and working on their own. And they had so much natural ability and love of the game that really drove them.”
After one season with Bryant, Ippongi tried out for Lexington FC. “I didn’t think I was going to make it,” he said.
He made the first team on his first try.
“I loved soccer, so I just played it constantly and I had a lot of coaches and other players helping me get better,” Ippongi said. “I really appreciate that.”
A year later, Kaindu tried out for LFC as well.
“(The I Am Third team) lost Presidents Cup (an annual tournament) and Sota was like, ‘Come to my team. We just won state.’”
Kaindu made the first team on his first try.
As club teammates and friends, Kaindu, Ippongi and several others began playing and working out together on their own time. This past summer, the group played pickup games and trained almost constantly at Next Level, a local indoor facility.
“It’s no shock that the best players in any city, if you go to Louisville or Lexington or Cincinnati, the best players are the kids that are also the hardest workers,” said Jason Behler, Ippongi’s coach at Henry Clay. “In some sports, I think that perhaps you can get away with it for a little bit longer, but nine times out of 10 the best guy out on the field is the hardest working guy out on the field.”
Kaindu’s coach at Tates Creek agreed.
“I know both of those kids — any time they are not in school — any time they are not at their practice or games — every waking moment they’ve got a ball at their foot,” Creek’s Albert Gross said. “ They rely more on unorganized soccer time to develop their skill than most players, and I think it shows.”
Both want to continue to play in college, but are still weighing their options with plans to announce later in the school year.
“I’m so proud of them and all those guys,” Hacker said of his Arlington kids and the I Am Third team. “ That was our goal, to give these guys an opportunity to do something. Ben’s going to college to play soccer, now. …. That’s unbelievable for me that I had a little smidgen of a part of that.”
For now, the focus is trying to help each of their teams reach the 11th Region Tournament and possibly the final where they could meet in the postseason for the first time if their teams survive districts and get a favorable draw.
“We want that game,” Kaindu said. “We’ve been talking about that game since freshman year.”
Lafayette coach honored
Lafayette boys’ coach Chris Grimm last week was named a recipient of the High School Coach of Significance Award by United Soccer Coaches.
The coaches’ organization recognized 41 coaches each from a different state for teaching life lessons through soccer and “making an impact within their schools and communities well beyond their records of wins and losses.”
42nd District Tournament
At Frederick Douglass. Finalists advance to regional.
Monday’s first round
8 p.m.: Sayre vs. Scott County
6 p.m.: Henry Clay vs. Sayre-Scott County winner
8 p.m.: Bryan Station vs. Frederick Douglass
8 p.m.: Tuesday’s winners
43rd District Tournament
At Lafayette. Finalists advance to regional.
Monday’s first round
7 p.m.: Lafayette vs. Lexington Christian
6 p.m.: Lexington Catholic vs. Tates Creek
8 p.m.: Paul Laurence Dunbar vs. Lafayette-Lexington Christian winner
7 p.m.: Tuesday’s winners