Beneyam Yifru remembers the feeling of striking a makeshift soccer ball made of balled up socks between the goalposts of a makeshift goal with an invisible net.
On patches of dirt in Ethiopia and only sometimes with a ball somebody in the neighborhood had — likely made of plastic and most certain to pop — Yifru began an extraordinary path in a game that’s led him to stardom in his senior season at Overland High School.
As his family continues to live out the classic American dream in Colorado, Yifru is doing so on the soccer pitch where he has 18 goals and sees opportunities open in front of him by the day.
“We tied up a bunch of socks into a ball and played on the dirt,” recalled Yifru, who was born in Ethiopia and arrived in Colorado at 7 years old.
“Every couple of weeks, a neighborhood kid would have a ball and we could really play, but the quality was so bad. …Here in America, you can go anywhere at a park and find a nice goal with nets, but you’d never see that in Ethiopia. What we have here is such a blessing.”
Yifru said his family landed in Aurora in 2008 after it won the Diversity Visa (DV) Lottery — which go to a small number of applicants from six geographic regions around the world — and began to live with his uncle.
He remembers the first thing that struck him when he stepped out of the doors at Denver International Airport.
“I saw all the cars in the parking lot and I thought there were more cars than in my entire country,” he recalled.
“We tied up a bunch of socks into a ball and played on the dirt,” Yifru said of his soccer roots in Ethiopia.
Yifru and his family began to acclimate to life in a new country and with a philosophy based on never settling, began to establish themselves. His parents now own several business and his sister is a Gates Scholar at the University of Colorado with medical school on the horizon.
The opportunities for Yifru to play soccer were plentiful — more than he ever could have dreamed of back in Ethiopia — and he has fully taken advantage of them.
He played his freshman and sophomore years at Overland, where he tallied eight goals and six assists, before he skipped his junior season to play in the Developmental Academy program offered by Real Colorado.
In order to regain the burst and fast-twitch muscle he needs as a striker, Yifru gave up running cross country and track — much to the chagrin of his Overland teammates, who still believe he could have put them over the top if he’d stuck with it — and it’s helped him return to high school soccer with a vengeance.
Scoring on a variety of set pieces, finished through balls from teammates or with his own individual creativity, Yifru led Class 5A in goals scored for much of the early stages of the season and recorded hat tricks against Hinkley, Horizon and Eaglecrest (the latter helping the Trailblazers rally from a 2-0 deficit for a 4-2 win).
First-year Overland coach Daniel Pennington — who has an extensive soccer background and just arrived from England six months ago — has been impressed by Yifru.
“Beneyam is quality all around and the team really respects him,” Pennington said of one of the captains on his 5-5 team.
“He’s quality within the school as well as on the soccer field,” he added. “His skills speak for themselves. His feet are unbelievable and his finishing is obviously top quality and he brings a lot of other people into the game as well.”
Yifru — who also has five assists for a team with other dangerous offensive threats in junior Simon Liga and senior Anis Hule — missed another game in which he could have scored more goals when he had to sit out the Trailblazers’ 3-1 loss at Highlands Ranch because of a soft red card against Eaglecrest.
One of Yifru’s good friends — Rangeview senior striker Rashid Seidu-Aroza, his former club teammate for several years — has since overtaken him in the goal scoring chase, but the good friends have a built-in competitive rivalry that is beneficial for both.
“Rashid is an exceptional player; he’s an amazing striker and I miss playing with him because he’s an amazing target man and can do all type of things,” Yifru said.
Seidu-Aroza — who paced 5A in goals with 27 last season — was the one playing catchup to Yifru until the last week.
Back-to-back four-goal games against Thornton and Brighton boosted Seidu-Aroza into the lead and he added his 23rd of the season — the game-winner — in a 1-0 win over Hinkley Oct. 1.
“Before the season started, Ben texted me and said he was going to be a competition for me this year,” Seidu-Aroza said with a smile. “I said ‘We’ll see about that.’ He has been a competition for me.
“I feel like we’re pushing each other to achieve more and I like that.”
While his parents have aspirations that he will play professional soccer, Yifru has to take the next step first.
It looks like he will have that chance, as his performance this season has put him on the radar of Division I college programs such as the University of San Diego, which he is hoping to visit.
Yifru is also likely to get a chance to impress college programs at a winter showcase held by the two DA programs — Real Colorado and the Colorado Rapids — that is often fruitful for top players.
Once he gets college squared away, Yifru plans to return to Ethiopia over the summer — like he did between his junior and senior years — and take back things like cleats and other soccer equipment for family members and friends still there.
Yifru feels fortunate every day for his situation.
“I try to utilize everything here and seize every opportunity that I get,” Yifru said. “I’m grateful for everything that we have here.”
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports
AURORA CLASS 5A BOYS SOCCER LEADERS (THROUGH OCT. 2)
Points: Rashid Seidu-Aroza (Rangeview) 54, Beneyam Yifru (Overland) 41, Diego Ocampo (Gateway) 34, Braidon Nourse (Rangeview) 29, Ivan Luna (Grandview) 23
Goals scored: Rashid Seidu-Aroza (Rangeview) 23, Beneyam Yifru (Overland) 18, Diego Ocampo (Gateway) 12, Ivan Luna (Grandview) 11, Winston Franco del Cid (Gateway) 9
Assists: Braidon Nourse (Rangeview) 13, Diego Ocampo (Gateway) 10, Rashid Seidu-Aroza (Rangeview) 8, Rudy Medina (Hinkley) 7, Anis Hule (Overland) 6
Goals Against Average: JJ Farbes (Eaglecrest) 0.372, Jacob George (Grandview) 0.933, Justice Tyler (Cherokee Trail) 1.569, Trent Johnson (Overland) 1.588, Matthew Croft (Rangeview) 1.723
Saves: Justice Tyler (Cherokee Trail) 85, Hector Velez (Hinkley) 63, Trent Johnson (Overland) 60, JJ Farbes (Eaglecrest) 58, Jesus Ascencio (Gateway) 55