Staff Photo: John Bohn
Collins Hill soccer player Emmanuel Raji is the Daily Post’s boys soccer player of the year.
Centennial had the top ranking and the nearly perfect record. What it didn’t have was a way to slow down the Collins Hill attack, specifically senior Emmanuel Raji.
Raji and his teammates controlled the Class AAAAA boys soccer state championship match for a 3-1 victory and the Eagles’ third title in a four-season span. Raji put pressure on the Knights constantly, scoring and assisting the game’s final two goals.
“When we first started (the final), I was feeling it a little bit,” said Raji, the Daily Post’s boys soccer player of the year.
Raji was a matchup problem for Centennial, like he was for many of the Eagles’ opponents the past few seasons. He had 14 goals and nine assists this season, also earning Gwinnett Goal Club player of the year honors.
The Georgia Southern signee was just as big a force as a junior for a state runner-up team with 21 goals and nine assists.
“His athleticism helps him out quite a bit,” head coach Drew Prentice said. “He’s got that good pace and he’s just big enough to hold players off. (Our opponents) just really didn’t have an answer for him. … He’s really tough to handle in 1-on-1 situations and he did a great job exploiting our opponents in those situations.”
Raji’s rise to high-school stardom is unique.
Born in Nigeria, he moved to the U.S. as a 5-year-old. He played a little soccer, but didn’t join a team until he was an eighth-grader. He started playing recreational soccer and was quickly pulled up to the select group.
It’s a route that is different from many local soccer players, who begin playing competitive soccer at 6 years old or younger.
“He just keeps getting better and better and better,” Prentice said. “He didn’t even start playing high level club soccer until he was 14 or 15. He didn’t take the traditional path.”
Raji enjoyed his rise through club soccer, but had just as much fun with his success in high school soccer. While he posted some impressive individual numbers for the Eagles, it was the team accomplishments that stood out the most to him.
Collins Hill won three state titles in his four seasons, a championship game loss to Walton his junior year the lone blemish.
“It’s unbelievable (to win again),” Raji said. “Just making it to the finals again was amazing. I’m pretty speechless still. It was great to go out on top.”
Raji and his teammates also will leave quite the legacy at Collins Hill, as will Prentice, who stepped down after the season to become director of coaching at Dacula Soccer Club. The Eagles have now played in the last five state championship games in AAAAA, winning three of those.
“It was awesome (to look back at my four years),” Raji said. “Whoever plays at Collins Hill now will have big expectations. We didn’t make it easy on them. High school soccer is all fun and games at some places, but we have high standards at Collins Hill. It’s serious here.”