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Although he’s only 14, soccer has taken Walker Barnes farther than he ever expected to go at this point in his life.
The eighth-grader at Elm City Middle and member of the Wilson Youth Soccer Association ’04 Explosion 15U Boys team was selected to play for a U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program team that toured Scotland and Northern Ireland earlier this month. Barnes, a goalkeeper, and WYSA ’04 Explosion teammate Ariel Nunez of Snow Hill, a midfielder, were the only two players from North Carolina selected to the ODP Boys 05 South Region squad, which had players from the entire South Region or Region III. They were just three players from North Carolina selected out of the 100 who attended a camp in Florida in December that whittled down the traveling squad.
“I’ve never been out of the country so it was pretty nice,” said Barnes, who also plays on the Pitt-Greenville Soccer Association ’05 Stars team with Nunez.
Thomas Goines, the director of coaching for WYSA, said that having players selected for such duty was “a high honor.”
“When small clubs, like WYSA and PGSA, are able to produce players of such high quality of character and ability, it is a testament to the club and culture of both programs,” Goines said. “The success of WYSA homegrown academy players continues to shine a light on our small piece of the soccer world.”
While in Edinburgh, Barnes and his 05 South Region teammates competed against teams at their age level from such noted British soccer clubs as Liverpool FC and Heart of Midlothian FC, which hosted the tournament — the inaugural Heart of Midlothian Invitational Easter Cup 2019 The other three ODP Boys 05 region teams were also part of the tournament as well as teams from clubs such as
Aberdeen FC, Arsenal FC, Celtic FC, Rangers FC and Hibernian FC.
The level of play by his British counterparts impressed Barnes.
“It’s just such a higher level of soccer over there,” he said. “The local club teams could compete with our teams selected from the best players in the country.
“They were very good. They would have beaten any of our local teams over here.”
But Barnes’ South Region squad held its own, beating Hibernian FC 1-0 in the Shield Division final. The South Region had to beat another ODP regional team to reach the final of the Shield Division, the second division behind the Cup Division.
Barnes said the style of play was different from what he was accustomed to seeing in North Carolina.
“They possessed the ball a lot more than they do here. They play at such a higher level because they get taught from when they were young how to play like that,” he explained. “Their forwards were way better finishing. Overall, all their players were better.”
Barnes didn’t allow a goal in the four matches his team played in Scotland while Nunez netted the game-winning goal against Hibernian.
Barnes said there were obstacles playing behind defenders that he had just met a few months earlier, but that the closeness of the group made it easier.
“It was tough but all of us stayed in touch a lot and we have a strong bond together,” he said. “We’re like brothers, basically, and so that really helps a lot because we all want the same thing — to win the championship.”
From Edinburgh, the four ODP squads headed to Northern Ireland, where the rosters were combined for matches against the country’s 14U National Team.
While soccer was the focus, there was time to do cool things like visit castles.
“We had the chance to walk around in small groups with our friends and just get pictures and see the city and stuff,” Barnes said.
He also had his parents and two older sisters along for what amounted to a family vacation, even if it was mostly about soccer.
“That’s all we really did,” said his father, Ken Barnes. “We did a little sightseeing. We had a couple of days of no soccer and we went to some castles and did stuff. But it was 90% soccer and it was fun! If we weren’t playing, we were watching some of the other teams.”
Barnes and Nunez both play for Chad Halverson on the ’04 WYSA Explosion. In fact, Barnes credits Halverson’s son and his teammate, Nick, for asking him to play way back when they were in third grade.
“That’s how he got involved in soccer,” Ken Barnes said. “He told me one day, ‘Dad you need to take me to Gillette. I’m going to play soccer.’
“I didn’t know anything about soccer. I played baseball and football. I dropped him off when he was 6 and he’s been with Chad ever since!”
Walker Barnes said he’s always pretty much played in goal.
“I was just big as a kid. I’ve just started to thin out so that’s why I started at goalie, because I was the biggest player — tall and fat-wise,” he said with a laugh. “They put me in the goal.”
But Barnes had to be something besides big to stay in goal.
“He was a typical chubby little guy running around and he was brave!” Chad Halverson said. “It wasn’t that he was chunky why we put him in there but he was one of the few kids at that age – 5, 6 or 7 years old — who would kind of throw himself on the ball and at the ball and kids’ feet. It was more the braveness that started him than it was his physical attributes.”
Now 6-foot-0 and growing, Barnes looks every bit the part of an elite goalkeeper. Halverson credits Barnes’ work ethic for him development.
“He’s one of the hardest-working kids that I have ever coached and I’ve been coaching now for 26 or 27 years,” said Halverson, who served as an assistant coach at Barton College for several years. “He puts a lot of work in it. He’ll go anywhere to get coaching, just to get better. His drive and desire to be great is really unmatched by kids his age. So that’s why he’s gotten to this position in ODP that he’s gotten — because he’s put in the work.”
Ken Barnes said that his son has worked with Hunt coach and former University of Virginia standout Phillip Long as well as North Carolina State University goalkeeper coach Nathan Walzer.
“From early on, we’ve told him that if that’s what he wants to do, we’ll get people to help him,” Ken Barnes said.
Walker Barnes has been a big part of his teams’ success this spring. He helped the ’04 WYSA Explosion to a 7-2-2 mark and a runner-up finish in the North Carolina Youth Soccer’s 15U Boys First Division East. But Barnes’ ’05 PGSA team did even better, winning the 14U Boys Premier Division and earning the top seed in their age division for the North Carolina State Cup playoffs that will culminate in the semifinals and finals at Gillette Soccer Complex in May.
If the PGSA Stars make it that far, Barnes won’t have to travel very far for that one.