SHRUB OAK, N.Y. — It was Sept. 16, 2013, and the sun was setting at Yorktown High School, where the boys soccer team had built a 1-0 lead over rival Lakeland.
Even early in the season, the stakes were high in the crosstown matchup. The tension was raised further when a quick, decisive Lakeland player launched an impressive curling strike to the top-right corner of the net, tying the score at one.
It was enough for me to turn and ask a Lakeland fan, “Who is that?”
“That’s Johnny Denis,” he replied.
Denis, then a little-known sophomore for the Hornets, produced more magic that night. With time running out, the score still tied at one, he diced through the Yorktown defense, leaving everyone in the dust and slotting the ball past the keeper.
Final: 2-1 Lakeland. The legend of Johnny Denis had been born.
The sophomore would go on to enjoy a breakout season with 14 goals and 10 assists, earning all-state honors. His junior season, he notched an extraordinary 31 goals in 15 games (he had six hat-tricks, including one against Beacon in just five minutes) and was named the Section 1 Player of the Year.
Then, before his senior year, Denis was selected as one of 28 players nationwide for the U-17 U.S. Men’s National Team, and moved to Bradenton, Fla. to train at IMG Academy for the upcoming U-17 World Cup in Chile. As one of the newer players in the program, he did not make the final cut for the World Cup. But Denis got his chance this past February, when he was selected for the U-19 team that played in the Copa del Atlantico in Canary Islands, Spain.
“It’s amazing, you feel a responsibility to perform for your country,” Denis said. “There’s excitement, you’re anxious, but when you put that shirt on and go on the field, you forget about everything and just want to do your best. It’s life-changing.”
Now, Denis is gearing up for his freshman season at Columbia University, where he believes his team can win the Ivy League and go far in the NCAA Tournament. He often trains with New York City Football Club at its facility in Purchase, rubbing shoulders with legends like Frank Lampard, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo. The U-17 Residency Program that he entered in Florida once housed U.S. soccer stars Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.
But despite his growing list of achievements, Lakeland coach Tim Hourahan still knows Denis as the sixth-grader that used to play with, and beat, the eighth-graders in middle school gym class. He remembers when Denis would come down to gym during his lunch period to squeeze in extra soccer, and even wake up before school to get workouts in with Hourahan.
“I have not met a kid like that before,” Hourahan said. “It will probably be a long time before another one is as dedicated, especially at a younger age.”
Soccer has already taken Denis around the world and back, but his career is just getting started. His dream is to play professionally, and scouts have taken notice. Denis’ performance will be tracked at Columbia, and if he gets called back to the U.S. team, the intensity will only increase. But despite the pressure, Denis says he will stay focused.
“Through all the challenges, you just have to keep working and have that goal,” Denis said. “I think the goal is the most important part of trying to accomplish something.”
With that mindset, a bright future awaits Denis. After all, he’s got a knack for scoring goals.