Staff Photo: John Bohn Yonnatan Manmektew is a soccer player at Meadowcreek and is in line to be the school's valedictorian. Manmektew will attend Georgetown University.
NORCROSS --Forgive Yonnatan Manmektew if he cracks a smile at soccer practice.
Those long runs, the ones that others may complain about, he loves them. Would he rather skip Meadowcreek soccer practices to hang with his friends? No chance.
The high school senior is thankful for every drill at every practice, no matter how tiring or how tedious, because he knows a life without soccer. The sport has been taken away from him multiple times, first as a young child and again twice in high school, but his determination kept bringing him back.
That grit is why Manmektew is in his current position as a member of the Mustangs' Class AAAAAA state playoff team. Their upset of North Gwinnett on penalty kicks last week locked up a postseason spot, guaranteeing that their hard-working, reserve defender gets some extra practices.
"It's fun to practice," said Manmektew, also the valedictorian of Meadowcreek's senior class with a 3.9-plus GPA and a four-year member of the cross country team. "It's very fun to practice. Even on long runs in training, it's fun. They always look to me because I'm the runner."
Manmektew, the son of Ethiopian immigrants, followed his older brother into soccer as a youngster, but had to give up playing before he reached his 7th birthday. He enjoyed the sports, and the friends he made on his team, but his parents worked nights so transportation to practices and games was virtually impossible.
The family's decision to stop enrolling him in soccer was a sad time, but from his high-school perspective Manmektew understands why it happened. He carries no hard feelings about it, realizing that he used the extra time on his studies at Lilburn Elementary, Lilburn Middle and now Meadowcreek. The classwork has resulted into an acceptance, and a great financial aid package, from Georgetown, where he plans to enroll in August.
"My mom wasn't able to take me and I didn't have a ride, so I stopped (playing)," Manmektew said. "My mom had a night-time job. It would have been too hard to bring me to practice. I wish I could have continued (with soccer), but I don't mind. I remember the day I found out. I was disappointed, but it's OK."
Organized soccer wasn't an option for years, but Manmektew still found a way to play. Every month or two, he joined friends and family for games in the park. It was plenty to kindle his love for the sport, just not quite enough to sharpen his skills and game savvy to the level of his peers.
When he showed up at Meadowcreek tryouts as a sophomore --for his first practices with an organized team since he was 6 -- he was way behind his teammates.
"I found the game again my sophomore year," he said. "I thought I'd pick up a ball and see if I could still play. I enjoyed it. ... In 10th grade, I wasn't that good at all. I was the bottom of the bottom."
Nobody had to tell Manmektew where he stood that season. He knew better than anyone that his skills weren't up to par, so he wasn't shocked when he was cut in junior varsity team tryouts.
That cut didn't end his desire to play soccer, though. He played weekends and in the summer with Ethiopian players, most of them older, in DeKalb County and improved greatly, enough that he liked his chances of making the Mustangs' JV squad as a junior.
But when the JV and varsity rosters were posted last year, Manmektew wasn't on the list. The blow was crushing and nearly ended his quest to play high school soccer. If I can't make the JV as a junior, he figured, why try out as a senior?
"It was real disappointing," Manmektew said. "I thought I was going to break down, but my friends lifted me up. I didn't know if I'd try out again after my junior year when I couldn't make JV. But my friends convinced me, 'Keep working hard at it. It's your senior year. You've got to try out.' So I kept going."
He couldn't be happier that he did.
His ever-improving skills, and that runner's speed, made him a valuable roster addition for first-year Mustang head coach Oscar Narvaez. Manmektew carries just 130 pounds on his 5-foot-8 frame, but he uses his pace to overcome what can frequently be a mismatch in physical strength at the varsity level.
"Yonnatan is not an extroverted player, however, when he has to make his point he makes sure everybody pays attention," Narvaez said. "When we selected players for the team, 120 players showed up for the three days. So he called me aside, making sure I had a good look at his skills. As a player, he is ready to go. He never misses a practice or a game.
"He plays defense, but he's a versatile player who can play midfield or forward. In practice, he plays goalie. He has a positive and encouraging attitude that helps our team."
Most of Manmektew's soccer action still comes from those practices that he loves. His game participation can be counted on one hand, all as a reserve, but he relishes every opportunity to play.
"At first, I was nervous (to be on the field for games)," Manmektew said. "My friends had to tell me to just play. 'Just defend. You can do it.' That boosted my confidence the first couple of games and it's been good ever since. It's really fun. We're doing great as a team, too. We didn't expect to play so well."
THE MANMEKTEW FILE
Who: Yonnatan Manmektew
Favorite athlete: Lionel Messi
Favorite team: FC Barcelona
Dream job: Ambassador
• Defender on Mustangs' state playoff soccer team--Four-year member of school's cross country program
• Valedictorian of senior class with a 3.9-plus GPA, the lone B coming in freshman language arts
• Born in Georgia, but is the son of Ethiopian immigrants