At the University of Washington on Sunday, there will be a clash of two Pac-12 schools that will feature as many as six players from the Sounders FC Academy system as UW meets Stanford in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
On the other side of the country, in South Bend, Indiana, Sean Okoli will help lead Wake Forest against Notre Dame. While many in Seattle will have their eyes on the match between the Cardinal and Huskies, Okoli has had a stellar junior season for the Demon Deacons and also should be on the radar of supporters of Sounders FC.
A regular with the U.S. U-18 National Team coming out of high school, Okoli has shown a steady climb through the college ranks and is peaking at the right time during the NCAA Tournament.
“The expectations have been high, but I wasn’t putting any extra pressure on myself. I just wanted to take things one day at a time and do the best I can for my team,” Okoli said. “Luckily I’ve had a good season so far, but I’m hungry for more.”
Okoli has nine goals and two assists in 19 games for the 10-5-5 Demon Deacons, earning him All-ACC First Team honors. That is a good progression from his All-ACC Freshman team selection in 2011 and second team All-ACC honors as a sophomore in 2012. Although he is just off of his 11 goals and three assists from that sophomore season, he is happy with the improvements he has made in helping Wake Forest make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
“I was trying to make sure I could be a leader for this team. Last year, I was just trying to score goals and perform and there is so much more I can do for the team. I’m realizing that this year. Towards the end of last year, I realized that scoring goals is a good thing, but if you’re not winning games, there’s a problem. I worked all spring and all summer and I’m pretty confident now,” Okoli said. “I was very focused on just getting goals and making sure I was scoring goals every game. I’m more mature now though and know there is more to do.”
In addition to a renewed focus on the field, Okoli has also done extra work in training to hone his skills in front of goal.
The result has been an increased ability to create shots for both himself and his teammates, strengthened by a rough-and-tumble schedule through the season that has Wake Forest brimming with confidence in the tournament.
All five losses for Wake this season have come against ranked opponents, including one on November 5 to its opponent on Sunday, Notre Dame.
“Our coach set us up with a pretty hard schedule and I think those games got us ready for the tournament,” Okoli said. “We took some losses, but we didn’t always deserve those losses. Now we get a second chance against those teams and we’re excited at the chance to play Notre Dame again.”
While the attention of Sounders fans on the west coast will justifiably be fixed on players like Jordan Morris, Aaron Kovar and Darwin Jones as Washington meets Stanford on Sunday, so will the eyes of Okoli, as he cheers for his former Sounders FC Academy teammates from across the country.
“It’s always great seeing your good friends do well,” he said. “I hope for them the best and hopefully we can see each other soon.”
If it’s not in the NCAA Tournament – and they would have to reach the College Cup to play each other – then Okoli is hopeful that they will meet as teammates, as he is one of many Sounders FC Academy alums with realistic hopes of playing in the Rave Green again in the not too distant future.
To the 20-year-old Federal Way native, there is one way to ensure that his readiness can’t be questioned.
“I feel like I’m ready for the next level,” Okoli said. “But I want to show everyone that by winning that trophy.”