When Emmanuel Barjebo and Thornton Township started the 2013 season, the team didn't set any type of lofty goals such as winning this title or winning that super-sectional. Instead, Barjebo insists that the team simply wanted to get better.
"We just planned to play better," Barjebo said. "Just play good and be a competitive team. Our goal was to do better this season. We didn't win state, but what we did for our fans and our school, we actually made them proud, and that's all we wanted."
What the Wildcats did in 2013 was get better. A lot better. After going 11-6 in 2012, Thornton Township finished 19-3 in 2013, and Barjebo's 22 goals and 19 assists were a big part of the success and reemergence of the Wildcats. Barjebo is the 2013 Times Player of the Year.
"In the beginning of the season, we trained early to prepare ourselves mentally and physically for this season," Barjebo said. "From the beginning to the end, we kept with that. We were playing hard to go farther, but we didn't make it to that place we wanted to be, but apart from that, we did a great job for this season."
The Wildcats came up just short of a sectional championship, losing to Sandburg 2-1 in overtime at the 3A Andrew Sectional final, but Barjebo feels the team has made great strides in the past few seasons, and the future is bright surrounding the Thornton Township soccer program.
"This season the people within the community did a great job of coming out to support us," Barjebo said. "Even if we lose or not, they did a great job of coming out. The school too. Some of the teachers, some of the students, they all came out for the playoffs. It was a great season this year and a great experience."
Barjebo has taken a long road to the United States, and the simple ability to play organized soccer that may sometimes be taken for granted by other players is not lost on Barjebo. A native of Liberia in Western Africa, Barjebo and his family spent a dozen years at a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast before being selected to move to the U.S. through a United Nations program.
Barjebo's coach, David Gonzalez, is quick to tell anyone that what sets Emmanuel apart first and foremost is Barjebo's ability to improve others around him.
"The way that he just practices with us challenges the guys to play at a different level," Gonzalez said. "You can have individuals who are good, but in order to have a good team, those individuals actually have to make the other guys work at a higher level."
Barjebo's quickness and ball skills, set him apart from most forwards in the state, and his abilities did not go unnoticed, as he was an all-state selection in 2013.
"A lot of it has to do with his speed because he's so fast," Gonzalez said. "He's not the tallest person on the field, but he's just willing to work and put that little extra into it and take himself to a higher level."
Barjebo is looking to continue his soccer career after high school and has drawn interest from coaches at the college level. The senior is working to improve his GPA and ACT scores, so he will be able to continue his passion of playing soccer.
"I would like to continue my soccer career to the best of my ability," Barjebo said. "I really want to go to college and play on a team. I'm trying hard to get into a better college and go somewhere that will take me."