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Former GCU soccer player Waldrep makes journey to Phoenix Rising

Phoenix Rising midfielder Evan Waldrep blasts past several Las Vegas defenders. Prior to Phoeinix Rising, Waldrep played at Grand Canyon, Creighton, Real Salt Lake Arizona Academy and CCV Stars. (Photo by Josh Martinez/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When it comes to a local Arizona sports story, few can compare to the journey of Phoenix Rising FC midfielder Evan Waldrep.

He started his soccer career with the CCV Stars soccer club in Peoria and continued to Phoenix Rising FC, making stops at Real Salt Lake Arizona and Grand Canyon University.

Though he’s not playing a ton of minutes with the Rising, his usage is increasing as he’s made six appearances for 81 minutes so far this season. He also made his home debut with the club during the team’s June 13 win over Las Vegas Lights FC.

“Early on in the season, he was a little frustrated. I don’t think he was used to not playing,” interim coach Rick Schantz said.

“He’s been a great professional. I’m proud to say I’ve had some great conversations with him and told him, ‘At this point, you just have to put your head down, keep working and you’ll get your opportunity’ and he’s earned it.”

Waldrep, 21, is fresh out of college and has a lot of potential time ahead of him in his soccer career. But he said he remembers attending matches when the club was Arizona United SC and thinking it would be cool to play for that organization.

“It’s always been a dream of mine,” Waldrep said. “It’s so nice being able to be close to home and my family and friends for my first year of playing professional soccer.”

Waldrep’s soccer journey began when he was 4. He said there was a basketball hoop in his backyard and his parents gave him a basketball, but he didn’t use it as it was intended.

“Instead of shooting it, I put it on the ground and started dribbling it,” he said. “My parents were like ‘Ok, maybe we should sign him up for soccer because that’s his first instinct.’ ”

After bouncing around clubs, he settled at CCV Stars, a sports club Christ’s Church of the Valley began. It founded a campus in Peoria in 2004 and added club soccer the next year to its new location.

Waldrep joined the club after a short stint with Sereno Soccer Club — where he wasn’t playing as much — because he wanted to have a chance to shine as a soccer player.

It was fun to see the team grow in prominence, he said, as it finished second in the U-12 competition for the State Cup in 2009. He helped the Stars win three State Cups but when Waldrep turned 14, he wanted to take his talents to the next level.

At the time, the Real Salt Lake Arizona Development Academy was in Casa Grande. Waldrep joined the academy midway through his sophomore in high school and would commute three to four time a week to Casa Grande from Peoria.

This changed after that season ended and his family decided to move to Casa Grande. Waldrep said he didn’t play high school soccer, only focusing on the development academy.

That move proved productive as he was part of the U-16 team in 2013 that won the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Championship where he subbed on in the second half and scored a goal.

Mike Kraus, an assistant coach on that team, said Waldrep has a proclivity for passing the ball and had a keen eye for setting up opportunities, which benefited the team in 2013.

“He was able to find the right path to the right guy and because he was a player who was comfortable with both feet, he could do it to any player on the field whether he was playing on the right side or the left side,” Kraus said.

After the academy, Waldrep made the jump to Creighton University, a consistent top contender in NCAA Division I. He also competed with the U.S. U-18 and U-20 national teams.

“None of that would’ve been possible had I not took a risk and moved down (to Casa Grande),” Waldrep said.

At Creighton, Waldrep again found himself not getting the playing time he wanted. He spent two years with the Bluejays, came off the bench his first year and made two starts his second.

Waldrep said he wasn’t happy at Creighton, especially after an injury-shortened his sophomore season, so he turned to a familiar formula that worked in his youth.

Evan Waldrep dribbles the ball with two Las Vegas defenders closing in. Waldrep is from Peoria. (Photo by Josh Martinez/Cronkite News)

“If my goal was to become a professional soccer player, I needed to go somewhere where I would be able to play a lot and be a leader and just get a playing time so I could show what I could do,” he said.

Ahead of the 2017 season, Waldrep transferred to GCU, being one of three “impact transfers that year,” according to Top Drawer Soccer.

Grand Canyon coach Schellas Hyndman said when healthy, Waldrep was the Antelopes’ best midfielder.

But injury struck again, shortening Waldrep’s run with GCU. He only played five matches — one early in the season followed by the last four of the year.

That injury, Waldrep said, led him to make the decision to forego his final year in college and attempt to go professional.

“I wanted to stay one more year but unfortunately, I got hurt,” he said. “I had this opportunity of going pro and I didn’t know if I would have this chance again.”

Through this whole experience, Hyndman said he was impressed with Waldrep’s attitude and character.

“He never showed any anger or frustration,” Hyndman said. “He accepted it and he thought, ‘Let’s see if I get healthy and help the team at the end of the year.’ ”

GCU evaluates players for recruitment based on talent as well as attitude and character. In evaluating Wladrep, Hyndman said Waldrep was a focused player who worked hard in his school work.

On the field, Waldrep was unselfish and played team soccer, Hyndman said, unlike other players of similar talent.

“He’s a complete team player,” Hyndman said. “He’s a person of character. He’s a team leader. The fact that he’s playing for the Phoenix Rising, I am so pleased for him because I know he’s making that team better.”

Waldrep signed his first professional contract in February, joining Phoenix Rising for the 2018 season.

With less playing time, Waldrep has taken to learning from the more experienced players, particularly Didier Drogba, Chris Cortez and Solomon Asante.

The biggest lesson he said he’s learned from these experienced players is health and taking care of one’s body in regards to small injuries.

“Being able to switch from being a regular college soccer player to a professional soccer player is a huge difference,” Waldrep said. “It’s your job now and you have to take care of your body now because that’s your career.”

Waldrep is 21, meaning he has a lot of room to grow as his careers progresses. Schantz said the speed of play is a big change from college to professionals, and Waldrep is working with making that adjustment, making strides since signing.

Waldrep said he hopes his future will include time in the Rising starting lineup, playing for a Major League Soccer team and playing overseas. To get there, he’s trying to not look to far ahead.

“I’m just trying to worry about what I can control right now and focusing on the little steps,” he said.

Waldrep is part of a growing group of soccer players to come out of Arizona. That list includes New York Red Bulls’ Luis Robles. U.S. Women’s National Team’s Julie Ertz and Ventura Alvarado of Liga MX in Mexico.

Schantz said Arizona is an untapped mine for soccer talent, one the team could farm for homegrown talent, especially if the team’s MLS bid is successful. Phoenix Rising is applying for one of two open expansion spots in MLS.

The success of Waldrep and other soccer stars, Kraus said, shows that there is a pathway to the highest levels in soccer and others have tread that path.

With Waldrep in particular, Kraus said Waldrep shows that goal is achievable even in the face of adversity.

“It continues to be cyclical and it’s always inspiring the next younger five years, the next younger five years and Evan’s a part of that,” Kraus said. “He’s written his story — it’s not done — but he’s put his stamp on this route.”

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