Staff Photo: John Bohn Emmanuel Raji is a senior soccer player at Collins Hill High School. Raji will play soccer while studying at Georgia Southern University. Raji's most admired soccer player is Steven Gerrard of Liverpool in the English Premier League. Both Raji and his father are devoted Liverpool fans.
Emmanuel Raji only knows one way to end a high school soccer season.
For the last three years, Raji and his Collins Hill teammates have been in the Class AAAAA title game. They won championships in 2009 and 2010, but lost a heartbreaker to Walton in the last year's final.
Now a senior, Raji wants to end his career with another trip to finals and bring the championship back to Suwanee.
"That's our goal every year, to get to the state finals and win a trophy," Raji said. "It's a lot of pressure because the whole school expects you to make it again. We have to perform game in and game out and get there."
Collins Hill has been the county's top boys soccer program in recent years. Since Raji's freshman year in 2009, the Eagles are 65-9. They've won 16-straight Region 7-AAAAA games dating back to a 2-1 loss to Peachtree Ridge in 2009.
"We just have that winning mentality and we have to go out there and win," Raji said. "Sometimes you're going to lose, but then you have to come back the next game and show you're still the top dog."
Collins Hill went 20-2 last season and big part was Raji's success as a forward. As a junior he led the county in goals with 21 goals and nine assists.
"He's a tremendous finisher from distance. He's fantastic in the air as well. At the goal, you can mark him behind. He's so threatening," Collins Hill coach Drew Prentice said. "I couldn't imagine defending him as a coach. I don't even really know how you would begin because you can't take one thing away because he's good at everything else."
Raji has continued his goal scoring success this season.
"I'm a scorer, a goal scorer," Raji said. "When you put the ball in the back of the net, you're doing something right."
He had three goals against Region 8 champion Berkmar earlier this season and posted the game winner against Class AAAA's No. 1 ranked McIntosh.
"He's just a tremendous threat. He's good with both feet," Prentice said. "I think last year he scored two or three goals in one game with his off foot. So he's a good player."
Raji's rise to success has been pretty fast. He grew up playing soccer in his native country of Nigeria. His parents wanted a better opportunity for him and his younger brother and sister, so they moved to the U.S. in 2000. Raji didn't start playing organized soccer until the eighth grade on a recreational team and he dominated the lesser competition. When he got to high school, he played on the JV as a freshman and joined a club team that spring.
"It was a lot more intense than the rec atmosphere," Raji said.
As a sophomore, he played sparingly on the varsity, but matured throughout the season. Sometimes his best competition was in practice against former teammate Malcolm Miller.
"That sophomore year, he was getting better throughout the high school season," Prentice said.
Everything began to click Raji's junior year. He was put into the starting lineup and flourished earning all-county honors.
"Honestly, I was a little surprised. I didn't expect it," Raji said. "My sophomore year I barely played, I scored like two goals all season. Last year was a huge step for me and it was great."
The big year helped Raji get noticed by colleges. He signed with Georgia Southern in February, making his family's move to the U.S. all worth it.
"That was a big reason for coming here, so I could get a college education," Raji said. "I think I'll be the first in my family to go to college. That's a big step for me to go there."
Collins Hill graduated Daily Post player of the year Dominic Bonilla, leaving Raji in position to take over the team. Bonilla led the Eagles to four state finals, including two state titles. It's a legacy that Raji hopes to continue this spring.
"I just hope we can continue what we've done over the last couple of years and get to another state finals and win," Raji said. "When you have a good year like that, people expect you to come back and go past that."