CARPINTERIA, Calif. -- Ema Boateng grew up in a home with no electricity and no running water in Ghana, but his intellect, determination and soccer ability offered him a shot at a better life. The teen hit a pretty big bull's-eye Thursday when he was named the 2011-12 Gatorade National Boys Soccer Player of the Year.
Boateng was surprised with the news in his Cate School (Carpinteria, Calif.) environmental science class by one of the most recognizable faces in American soccer, Alexi Lalas, who earned Gatorade Michigan Player of the Year honors in 1987-88.
“I’m very overwhelmed,” said Boateng, a Cate School boarding student who turned 18 in January. “I did not see this coming. I’m looking at the list of names of athletes who’ve won this before and I can’t believe I’m anywhere near this list. I can’t believe I’m on it.”
The 5-foot-6, 165-pound junior midfielder led the Rams to a 20-2-1 record and the CIF-Southern Section Division VII tournament championship this past season. Boateng scored 32 goals, passed for 19 assists and was a repeat selection as the Southern Section Division VII Player of the Year.
“I’m here to welcome him to the Player of the Year family,” said Lalas, 41, a veteran of two FIFA World Cup teams with US Soccer (1994 and ’98), a former Major League Soccer front office executive and now a television analyst for ABC and ESPN. “It was a wonderful moment. It was a genuine surprise. He’s truly a special talent on and off the field.”
A native of Ghana and a scholarship student at Cate, Boateng has lived with a local host family during weekends, holidays and summers since his arrival in 2009. He has returned home to Ghana once in the last three years, during the summer of 2011.
Selected as a preteen by the charitable Right to Dream Academy in Ghana as a candidate for study abroad, Boateng arrived in the U.S. with English as his third language (behind his Ghanaian dialect and French), but is excelling at Advance Placement English at Cate this spring.
“I feel very fortunate to have gotten to know him because Ema is a special human being,” said host-family father Mark Schwartz. “We’ve spent a lot of time and energy being the best support system we could for him, and the benefits have far exceeded the investment.”
Boateng is now a finalist for the prestigious Gatorade Male High School Athlete of the Year award, to be presented at a special ceremony prior to The ESPY Awards in July. As the recipient of the 241st Gatorade National Player of the Year trophy to be awarded since 1985, Boateng becomes the third student-athlete from the state of California to earn Gatorade National Boys Soccer Player of the Year honors.
The award recognizes not only outstanding athletic excellence, but also high standards of academic achievement and exemplary character demonstrated on and off the field. ESPNHS manages the award’s selection process.
Boateng has maintained a 3.75 GPA in the classroom. A student tour guide for the Cate School, he has volunteered locally on behalf of multiple school-wide community service projects in addition to coordinating and coaching a summer youth soccer camp. As he concludes his junior year of high school, Boateng has earned enough credits to be considered college-ready by the NCAA Initial Eligibility Clearinghouse and will attend the University of California at Santa Barbara on an athletic scholarship this fall.
Boateng is a two-time Division VII First Team All-State honoree and concluded his prep soccer career with 79 goals and 49 assists. Cate’s 2012 season ended with a 4-3 loss to Santa Monica-Crossroads in the CIF State Regional Division 3 Championships, a game in which he scored the first Rams goal.
“In the 14 years I’ve been coaching in Southern California, I haven’t seen anybody close to as good as Ema,” said Vishtasp Farhadi, the U.S. Development Academy Co-Director for Strikers FC. “In terms of maturity and soccer IQ, he’s a very special player. He’s uniquely creative and has amazing vision.
"At the international Milk Cup in Ireland last summer, he became the only American to earn MVP honors in the 30-year history of that tournament," added Farhadi. "That puts him in the company of people like (English Premier League striker) Wayne Rooney, (LA Galaxy midfielder) David Beckham and (EPL attacking midfielder) Giovani DeSantos at the same age. Pretty good company.”
Boateng is only the second boys soccer talent to win as a non-senior in the award’s 27-year history, joining 2010-11 winner and current Cosby (Midlothian, Va.) senior Luis Rendon. Only 18 athletes across the program’s 12 sports have ever won national honors as a non-senior. Boateng is also the second straight foreign national to win national Gatorade boys soccer honors (Rendon is a native of Columbia).
Boateng becomes the 58th prep athlete from California to earn Gatorade National Player of the Year recognition in all sports since 1985. The state has produced multiple national winners in football, volleyball, girls soccer, girls and boys basketball, boys and girls track and field, baseball and softball as well as Major League Soccer fullback Jordan Harvey (2001-02), a Capistrano Valley (Mission Viejo, Calif.) alumnus, Notre Dame assistant coach Greg Dalby (2002-03), a Poway (Poway, Calif.) alumnus, and now Boateng in boys soccer.
Recent Gatorade National POY alumni from the realm of men’s soccer include MLS Sporting KC forward Soony Saad (2009-10), MLS FC Dallas midfielder Brayan Martinez (2006-07) and Second Team All-Big East forward Dillon Powers (2008-09), a senior at Notre Dame.
California has produced more Gatorade national winners than another state. Texas (25) and Florida (18) are a distant second and third. Jesuit (Carmichael, Calif.) track standout Eric Mastalir—now a VP in the NHL’s San Jose Sharks’ front office—became the first winner from the Golden State in 1985-86. Most recently, reigning 800-meter state champion and current Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.) senior Amy Weissenbach won in 2010-11.
Want to know who won Gatorade Boys Soccer Player of the Year in your state? Click here. Visit the ESPNHS Player of the Year blog and be the first to know who wins 2011-12 Gatorade Player of the Year hardware in five other sports by following the ESPNHS team that manages the award program’s selection process.