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“Learn to dominate”: Former player of the year Ekpemogu gets fresh start at Taft

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Former Garces standout Ebubechukwu Ekpemogu (center) is now trying to make his mark at Taft College after a brief stint with CSUB.

For Taft College soccer coach Angelo Cutrona, building relationships with young players can sometimes be a delicate process. While he firmly believes the junior college experience is ideal for a lot of players, he understands that he is perceived as a “middle-tier” option.

“Their dreams and their hopes are that they can make it to the biggest level,” Cutrona said. “So I don’t want to be a dream killer, never.”

But every now and then, a player he knows and likes will spend some time at the highest level and decide they want a change. Cutrona waits his turn. And eventually Taft comes back into the picture.

“We’re the next best thing for them,” Cutrona said. “And I sort of know, deep down in my heart, that we are the best thing for them.”

With Ebubechukwu Ekpemogu, that’s precisely what he believed.

As a high school junior in 2019, Ekpemogu was one of the state’s most dominant scorers for the Garces Rams, scoring an impressive 43 goals en route to a Southern California championship and BVarsity All-Area Player of the Year honors. The following season, he struggled with injuries but still signed to play NCAA Division I soccer at Cal State Bakersfield heading into 2020.

Like a whole lot else in 2020, it didn’t go to plan — the Roadrunners didn't have a proper season, and Ekpemogu said he was also contending with some family matters.

“So I just decided that maybe a fresh start would be better,” he said, “and therefore, I was looking for other schools in the transfer portal, but after talking to Angelo and Coach Dru (Bogden), I decided that Taft was the best.”

Cutrona, who has coached the Cougars since 2002, had him on his radar for a while, as Ekpemogu played for a local club team when he was younger that was coached by a Taft assistant. Cutrona said they now have four or five players from that team.

“The transition for them to come here was going to be good,” he said. “We were going to have instantaneous success, I think, because we have kids that are more familiar with what we do.”

Cutrona said he thinks his role as a junior college coach affords him more of a chance to develop players than one of his counterparts at a university might have. In the case of Ekpemogu, he said a lot of the development has centered around shaping the young forward’s mindset. For one thing, he doesn’t have to be the star on a talented Taft team that sits at 11-2-3, tied for sixth in the state. Ekpemogu had five goals by Sept. 21 but hasn’t scored since, though he’s still tied for the team lead in goals, according to Taft’s website.

“It is truly more difficult to get goals,” Cutrona said. “He’s having to adapt to that, because I think it’s obviously quite easier to get the stats in high school, and so it’s complicated.”

Ekpemogu said he’s learned a lot of valuable lessons already.

“I think as I grow, I think that I’ll definitely get better,” he said, “make better decisions on the field, (be) smarter, and just learn to dominate more games.”

The adjustment process has been pretty smooth for him, he added, because even though it’s an entirely new program, he has plenty of teammates he knows well. Moises Cisneros, Aldo Pantoja and Jaime Tiscareno all also played at Garces. Pantoja said the longtime comrades all know each other’s playing styles and can bring a greater energy to the game as a result.

“(Ekpemogu’s) a rock up top, so in any dangerous situation, we can always look for him, and he could just be a strong outlet out,” he said. “And knowing his play style has also helped me (in terms of) how I can find him in better spaces.”

He’s played with Ekpemogu for five or six years and seen plenty of growth in that time.

“He’s just matured a lot lately,” Pantoja said, “with all the pressure he’s been getting, all the attention.”

Ekpemogu also noted that while his former teammates provide a measure of familiarity, he’s also enjoyed getting to know players from different soccer backgrounds: “You can learn something from them, and you can also teach them something that they might not have known.”

For Cutrona, Ekpemogu’s ability to demonstrate his positive attitude to these players — even after his time at CSUB didn’t go according to plan, even as the Taft staff is trying to reshape his mindset and “demand greatness” from him — has been a great boon to the team.

“The freshmen right out of high school are looking at — How does he respond? How does he go about his business every day?” Cutrona said.

Right now, Ekpemogu said his goals are winning conference and winning state. It’ll become clear in November if the steady Taft squad is up to those challenges; it may take longer, however, to determine what Ekpemogu is truly capable of achieving in college soccer.

Reporter Henry Greenstein can be reached at 661-395-7374. Follow him on Twitter: @HenryGreenstein.

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