By even the most stringent of standards, freshman Joe Yonga had a breakout performance last Wednesday in the men’s soccer team’s 2-1 loss to Big Ten regular season champions, Penn State.
In just his seventh career start, Yonga was crucial in containing a dynamic Penn State offense that had lit up Northwestern just a few games ago for four goals. Playing in the sweeper position for the Red, Yonga limited the Nittany Lions leading scorer, Jason Yeisley to just two shots, and forced Penn State’s assist leader, Simon Omekanda into numerous turnovers.
Yet, for Yonga, an overall stellar performance that earned applause from the stands was a disappointment, as the game winning goal came off the head of his mark early in the second half.
“It was my fault. I was on the guy [and] he just won it,” Yonga said. “If I was a little more aggressive, I probably could’ve gotten to it.”
Such tough standards may seem harsh, but they have earned the young defensive midfielder a starting position and crucial role in Cornell’s lineup. While Yonga may be quick to criticize his mistakes, the rest of the men’s soccer team, including head coach Bryan Scales, is quick to praise his strengths.
“He’s just one of those kids you can challenge each and every day in training and he rises to the challenge every time,” Scales said. “He’s one of a bunch of freshmen I think, who are really going to blossom as they move along.”
For a Cornell defense that lost senior captains, Peter Lynch ’05 and Scott Palguta ’05 to graduation last year, Yonga’s rapid development and quick transition to the speed of college play has come at an especially good time.
“Everything’s a lot a faster. In club soccer, a lot times you can dribble and try and pull some moves here and there, but in the college game, that can get you into trouble,” Yonga said. “I try not to make too many mistakes, so that means passing the ball when I can and trying to dribble as little as possible.”
Despite being a prolific scorer in high school, Yonga has found his niche as a defensive center midfielder for the Red. Quick decision-making paired with equally quick feet have produced veteran-like consistency from Yonga.
“A team usually lives and dies with its defensive center midfielder,” Scales said. “[It] is the most important position on the field, and we’ve entrusted it to a freshman, and we haven’t been disappointed by any stretch.”
While Yonga has earned the respect of his coaches and teammates, he came into the season knowing there were no guarantees.
“I didn’t have too many expectations. It’s always tough coming as freshman. You don’t know what to expect really, but I worked hard,” Yonga said. “Things didn’t work out the first couple of games. I didn’t get much playing time.”
Undiscouraged by the season’s early games, Yonga used his training sessions as a springboard into the starting lineup. Constantly working to improve his game, Yonga has drawn comparisons from Scales to former Cornell standouts Palguta and Rick Stimpson ’01, who was Ivy-League Rookie of the Year in 1997.
“It’s no mistake he’s having the year that he’s having with the amount of time and effort that he puts into his game,” Scales said. “I think over the next two to three years, his goal should be to be one of the top midfielders in the Ivy League.”
Archived article by Paul Testa
Sun Staff Writer