Eastern Tech boys soccer star Isaac Ngobu doesn’t need much to polish his skills.
Over the past three summers, a soccer ball and old shoes have done the trick. With a nice day and music cranked up, he’s good to go.
“I just put like five shoes down and dribble in and out for a long time. It’s just the same old, I want to get better, so that’s what I do, go outside and practice,” he said. “It helps. I definitely think it helps.”
Playing on the left side of the midfield for the defending Class 2A state champion Mavericks, Ngobu is explosive, fearless and has the utmost confidence with the ball at his feet.
He often becomes his own show in the midst of a soccer game with one, often two and sometimes even three defenders used as props. With it comes scoring chances for the Mavericks.
“It’s incredibly fun to watch,” Eastern Tech coach Peter Glaudemans said. “The sheer excitement knowing that any moment in time he can begin this five to eight second stretch of total brilliance. He is that kind of player, if you give him an inch and let him pop through, those next seconds you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to be able to control. He brings a lot to us that way.”
Eastern Tech put it all together last season, going 19-1 and winning the program’s first state title. Ngobu was instrumental with a seven-goal, seven-assist season that included the game-winning goal in the state semifinals against Century.
As a senior in his third varsity season, he understands he has more responsibility and even more attention directed his way by opponents. That he only has one assist in the team’s first five games is no worry. The Mavericks have played a challenging early schedule and are off to a 3-1-1 start. Because of that, he’s all smiles.
Last week’s 2-1 win at Baltimore County rival Perry Hall showed Ngobu’s effectiveness despite not scoring.
Throughout the game, containing him was the Gators’ top priority, and it gave the Mavericks’ other talented midfielders — Dillon Nesteruk and Ahmed Abd-Elazem — extra space through the middle. Nesteruk tied the game off a pass from Abd-Elazem early in the second half, and Abd-Elazem scored the game-winner off a nifty through ball by Nestuek with 15 minutes left.
“Even when teams press two or three players on him, he still finds a way to open up space and that eventually opens up space for all of us,” Nesteruk, who has seven goals and three assists, said of Ngobu. “It always leaves one of us open, and he always finds a way to get us the ball, and that’s how we often score.”
Ngobu started playing recreation soccer when he was 7 years old and said things didn’t start out well. The one thing he had going for him? He was faster than everybody. He stayed with the sport, and his skills methodically began to catch up with his speed.
Driven to become the best player he can, he sought out the area’s top youth club program, Baltimore Celtic, and asked for a tryout in 2016. Celtic coach Brandon Quaranta knew little about him, but it wouldn’t take long before he did.
“Right away, he stood out because he has unique qualities,” said Quaranta, who also coaches at McDonogh. “You love his attacking flare and he’s really fearless going at defenders on the dribble, which you don’t see a lot in American players. So he kind of brought something different to our team.”
Quaranta brought something different to Ngobu as well, playing him at left back.
“He’s great with the game in front of him running with the ball at speed,” Quaranta said. “So we thought if we put him in the back, it would give him opportunities to get the ball running forward. He’s got special, special speed.”
At first, Ngobu was puzzled why he was moved back to defense. Now, he believes it was the best decision for him and the likeliest position he’ll play in college.
“I feel like I can read the game well and all the components I bring fit into playing left back,” he said. “You can still get forward if you’re confident. You can go down the line, make a run around your wing and make dimensions for the offense. I’m confident with the ball and fast enough to get back.”
Quaranta said by the end of the club season, Ngobu was oozing with confidence and left as one of the best players on the 2001 Celtic side. He’s carried that over at Eastern Tech. While left midfield is where he plays the most, Glaudemans also uses him in the back or up front, depending on the situation.
Ngobu will play any position with a smile. In fact, one rarely leaves his face.
His unique soccer skills are matched by a unique, ultra-positive attitude that splashes everywhere he goes. He’s fun and quirky and, while managing a 3.8 GPA in the classroom and a dogged work ethic on the practice field, manages to keep life light.
He lifts teammates with his corny jokes. He hasn’t tied his right shoelace since it became untied during a youth tournament his team won. And then there’s his occasional forgetfulness. Or maybe not so occasional.
“I have a bad memory,” he said. “Last week, I lost my keys in the classroom two days in a row and they were in the same exact place both times — right behind my soccer bag. I called my mom and she was on her way here, but I found them so she turned around.”
He laughs: “Nah, she wasn’t mad.”
Ngobu’s approach is beneficial on the soccer field for the Mavericks, who might trail occasionally but are never down on themselves. Ngobu, who is drawing attention from quality Division I colleges, makes sure of that.
“I feel like if I have my head down, that wouldn’t be good at all for the team,” he said. “So if I feel like I’m not doing well, I try my best to keep a positive attitude and keep us going.”