By Steve Gunn
And that senior, Ben Zelenka, is only 15-years-old – at least according to legal documents.
In truth Zelenka is 17, and will be 18 in October. But he was born in Ethiopia, and he and his younger brother were placed in an orphanage when they were very young.
Apparently adoption officials in Ethiopia, like those all over the world, have trouble finding homes for older kids, and Zelenka was six or seven when he entered the orphanage. So officials from the institution shaved a few years off his age on official documents, to try to make him more attractive to prospective parents.
His adoptive parents, Paul and Beth Zelenka of Spring Lake Township, were initially interested in adopting Zelenka’s younger brother, Sam, who was very small at the time. But they ended up bringing both brothers home and making them part of their family, joining an older son who had already been adopted.
The timing turned out to be perfect for the boys, because they only had to spend a relatively short period of time in the orphanage.
“People usually try to adopt younger kids,” Zelenka said. “My parents at the time wanted a baby, and the orphanage said we could be separated, but my parents didn’t want to split us up. As it turned out, Sam and I were only in the orphanage for about three months. That’s crazy. That never happens.”
Coach Payton, for one, is very glad the Zelenkas decided to bring both boys home.
Ben Zelenka has developed into an offensive force for the surprisingly successful Fruitport Calvary soccer team. He was second on the team last year with 14 goals, and already has six goals and four assists this season for the Eagles, who are off to an impressive 4-0 start.
The Eagles have beaten Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian, Montague, Walkerville and Saugatuck in non-league action. They will try to extend their unbeaten streak on Tuesday when they host West Michigan Aviation Academy.
“Last year we started off with seven straight wins, and honestly I expected a dip this season, but we haven’t had one yet,” Payton said. “We lost several really good players who are playing in college now. We have some good players back, but we also have some really young guys. I didn’t know how that would go. We only have one senior.”
Zelenka, that lone senior, played outside midfielder last season, and was moved to center midfielder this year to take advantage of his offensive skills.
Payton knew he would get goal production from Zelenka, but he wasn’t expecting this much, this soon. He said the difference is that Zelenka spent a lot of time in the offseason improving his game, and reported to the team ready to light up the scoreboard.
“He’s actually improved greatly on finding the net, and I expect that to continue,” Payton said. “Before this season he would just try to kick the ball really hard. Now he has learned to find open spots to put the ball, instead of just blasting it, and he’s learned to put a little finesse on his shot.”
Zelenka says he worked hard over the summer to become more of a finesse scorer, but said it took a few missed shots early this season to realize how important it was.
“One game in the beginning of the season I was just shooting over the goal, but toward the end of the game I started finessing and finding holes in the corner,” he said. “It worked really well. The goalie couldn’t get to it.
“My responsibility is to score. It helps that my teammates put me in a position to score. And I want it a little more, since this is my senior year. But scoring is not my main goal. I just want my team to succeed. Assists actually make me more happy than goals. I love playing that perfect ball to a teammate and watching him score.”
Zelenka has had more time than most players to adjust to varsity soccer. He’s in his fifth season of varsity, because students at very small schools like Fruitport Calvary are allowed to join the varsity in the eighth grade.
He was very small in the eighth-grade, even for his age, and admits that playing against boys three or four years older and much larger was a bit intimidating. But he said his experience playing for a youth travel soccer team helped him adjust, and he was comforted by the presence of his older brother, Zeri Zelenka, who was a junior on the team at the time.
Now Zelenka is playing a similar role in helping his little brother Sam, who is an eighth-grader on the team this year.
“Before he started he was kind of scared about being so small – even smaller than I was back then,” Zelenka said. “He said he didn’t know if he was going to have fun. But then we beat Grand Rapids NorthPointe (a team from a significantly bigger school) in the first game, and as we walked back to the car, I asked him if he was having fun now. He kind of pushed me away, but he smiled.
“I think he has two goals and an assist so far. He’s doing all right, and he hasn’t been pushed around much. It’s nice to see him more confident now. He’s my little brother and probably my best friend. I am very happy he chose to play. He’s a very strong person, very smart with a good work ethic.”
Besides Zelenka, several other players have stood out for the Eagles this season, according to Coach Payton. They include junior Ethan Pollock, who has six goals and one assist, as well as defenders Nick Ritsema, Royce Breiberger, Jacob Schuitema and Luka Assaad.
Goalkeeper Jose Wetzig has also performed very well, according to the coach.
Having so many younger players doing so well has been a big relief for Zelenka, who admits he felt a little pressure as the only senior on the team.
“I was a little nervous before the season,” he said. “I didn’t know how it was going to go. But we’re playing pretty well. We have scored 23 goals – that was a big question mark going in – and we’ve only given up two. The team atmosphere and chemistry is really good. We are very team-oriented, and we’ve had six different guys score.”