George Washington’s Zak Abdul-Jalil, a two-time first-team Class AAA All-State selection at defender, had never played forward a day in his life.
But when head coach Erik Engle and assistant Dave Nelson told him that he would be thrust into the front of the Patriots’ stalling offensive attack late in this his senior season, Abdul-Jalil handled it with the same steady mentality that has made him one of the anchors of the Patriot squad.
For his athleticism, leadership and versatility, Abdul-Jalil has been named the Gazette-Mail Kanawha Valley Boys Soccer Player of the Year, joining Herbert Hoover’s Don Mercer (Coach of the Year) and Hurricane’s Nate Kirk (Freshman of the year) as 2019 award winners.
Mercer helped lead Hoover to a Class AA Region 3 Section 1 final where the Huskies fell 2-0 to Charleston Catholic. Kirk scored 11 goals in starting all season for the Redskins, who lost only two games.
As for Abdul-Jalil, Engle said it’s hard to sum up just how important the senior utility player is to his team.
“He’s more than just a soccer player, he’s a verbal and visual leader on the team,” Engle said of Abdul-Jalil.
It was that confidence in him that led Engle to the move after GW suffered a 1-0 defeat to Bridgeport on Oct. 12. Since then the Patriots are 4-0, including an impressive 4-1 win over Winfield and a 5-0 victory over Greenbrier East on Saturday in a regional final that sent the defending state champions back to this weekend’s state tournament.
For his part, Abdul-Jalil has recorded five goals and three assists, but his playmaking ability at the front of the attack has certainly added some offensive punch for the Patriots.
“My mindset really hasn’t changed,” Abdul-Jalil said of the positional move. “Every time, I go out there and try to give 100 percent for my team. It’s just a little different in practice.”
“I’m still not so sure that ‘Z’ is very comfortable doing it,” Engle said. “He lobbies to get into position in the back when he can, but he also understands that his teammates are behind the idea and he’s going to do what he needs to do. He’s comfortable playing uncomfortable and that’s just the type of player he is.”
It also speaks to the type of person he is. On the first day of practice a year ago, Abdul-Jalil was notified that his father had unexpectedly passed away while working in California. Engle called it “about as rough a day you could have as a coach.” For Abdul-Jalil, it was a shocking loss of a man he credits for teaching him how to be a leader.
“First, may he rest in peace, there’s no day I don’t think about him,” Abdul-Jalil said. “Growing up, he just instilled leadership into me. Every time I went out, whether it was basketball games or soccer games, he taught me to be a leader on the field and try to be a role model for anyone out there. That really stuck with me.”
Abdul-Jalil and the rest of a big senior class needed that mental toughness in navigating through a tough schedule as the Class AAA favorite. In winning a title a year ago, GW snuck up a bit on the state, blitzing University and Hedgesville in Beckley to win the championship.
This time around GW wasn’t going to sneak up on anyone, and Abdul-Jalil said taking each opponent’s best shot on a nightly basis has prepared this team for one final stand.
“Usually most teams play their best against GW and it gives us extra incentive to work in practice, knowing everybody is coming for us,” Abdul-Jalil said.
Two of Abdul-Jalil’s senior classmates — forward EJ Davis (20 goals) and midfielder Solomon Clark (12 goals, 10 assists) — also earned first-team All-Kanawha Valley selections.
Winfield, which will also vie for a state title this weekend, took three spots in senior goalie Nathan Lanham (17 shutouts) and defenders Richard Smith and Jacob Verno.
Charleston Catholic will also be in the Class AA-A field and landed two players on the first team in junior midfielder Wil Swan (33 goals, 20 assists) and senior midfielder David Kershner (26 goals).
Senior goalkeeper Nick Eskins (eight shutouts, 11 assists) and senior forward Drake Lester (27 goals) gave Hurricane a pair of first-teamers.
Sissonville’s 1-2 scoring punch of sophomore forward Jaxson Haynes (39 goals, 38 assists) and senior striker Wyatt Ervin (38 goals, 38 assists) earned first-team nods.
Rounding out the team were Capital midfielder Nick Inhat and Poca defender Justin Williams.