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Evan Szklennik is the 2014 Fauquier Times Kettle Run Boys Athlete of the Year

Wednesday, Jul. 2 | By Jeff Malmgren
Evan Szklennik owns at least eight Kettle Run sports records. --Photo By Adam Goings
Evan Szklennik made a clairvoyant gesture as an 8-year-old.

During a youth football game, he intercepted a pass and then raised his index finger in air as he ran the ball back toward the end zone.

That move cost Szklennik a touchdown because a referee negated the score by penalizing him for taunting.

He didn’t need that touchdown, though, to amass an abundance of points over the course of his athletic life. Nine years later, Szklennik graduated from Kettle Run as one of the greatest scorers in school history. In fact, he proved to be “No. 1” in an array of ways as a senior.

The 17-year-old was named the boys soccer Player of the Year in the Class 3A East Region and in Conference 27. He was also named Conference 27 Defensive Player of the Year in football and finished as the Cougars’ second leading scorer while playing defense, offense and special teams. Plus, he claimed the top spot in least eight categories of Kettle Run’s sports record book.

With all that success, Szklennik was also an easy choice for the 2014 Fauquier Times Kettle Run Boys Athlete of the Year award. He can now safely raise that index finger.

“Where did you learn that?” Szklennik’s father, Mark, recently recalled asking his son after the gesture enticed a penalty years ago.

“On ESPN,” Evan Szklennik responded.

Perhaps not by coincidence, Szklennik hopes to one day appear on ESPN. The Warrenton resident has signed to play men’s soccer on scholarship at Radford University and then would like to continue his playing career as a professional before becoming a TV analyst.

He plans to major in business at Radford with a career focus in sports management or sports broadcasting.

“Sports have been my life and I don’t want to do anything else,” Szklennik said. “Soccer, it’s just where my heart is.

“I just don’t want it to end,” he said. “It means the world to me.”

And Szklennik has meant the world to the Kettle Run boys soccer team. After transferring from Osbourn Park following his freshman year, Szklennik helped the Cougars amass a 46-8-1 record over three seasons, and he finished with a program-record 67 career goals as a forward.

“Me and my dad talked about it before my sophomore year,” Szklennik said of breaking the record. “It was definitely my top goal.”

As a senior, Szklennik led the Cougars with 27 goals, and he added nine assists as he navigated them to a region tournament berth for the third consecutive season. Kettle Run also advanced to the state tournament for the first time in program history.

The Cougars entered the postseason among the favorites to win the 3A state championship. They lost, however, to Blacksburg in the semifinals, 3-2, on a devastating late goal by the Bruins and finished with a 17-2 record.

“We lost, but it’ll still stick with me forever,” Szklennik said. “The passion we had and the will to win. We gave it our all. … It’s unforgettable.”

Szklennik’s senior football season also ended without the Cougars accomplishing their goal of winning a state championship. They finished with a 7-5 record and failed to advance to the state semifinals for the first time in Szklennik’s career thanks to a heartbreaking loss, 6-3, to James Monroe in the East Region quarterfinals.

He had a tremendous impact, however, on every aspect of Kettle Run’s season as a safety, receiver, kicker and punter.

In fact, he set at least seven program records over the past two seasons. His records include career interceptions (19), single-season interceptions (10), interceptions in a game (three), consecutive games with an interception (five), longest interception return (98 yards), field goals in a game (three) and field goals in a season (nine).

"He’s such an athlete. It’s just amazing the stuff that’s coming his way," Mark Szklennik said. "I can’t remember where he had so much fun in a season."

Fittingly, Evan Szklennik played the best game of his football career on senior night this past fall. The Cougars lost to Eastern View, 34-33, but Szklennik had three interceptions, 119 yards on five receptions, three extra points and a 41 yards-per-punt average.

He went on to make the all-Conference 27 teams as a kicker, punter, receiver and defensive back, in addition to being named Defensive Player of the Year. He was also named an all-region defensive back and punter.

"As a sophomore he really was just a kicker," Cougars coach Jeff Lloyd said. “By the time the kid graduated he was a first team all-state selection at defensive back.

"That’s hard to do," Lloyd said. "I attribute it to his work ethic and desire to be good."

Although Szklennik didn’t make the VHSL all-state team, he made the all-state first team lists put out by Virginia Preps and the Virginia High School Coaches Association.

"A year I’ll never forget," he said. "It’s been such a great ride. It's definitely going to be tough to let go … but there's a new door opening" at Radford.

No more No. 4

Evan Szklennik literally out-grew his soccer jersey.

That's one reason he became one of the best players in the state as a senior.

As a 160-pound junior in his 2013 soccer season, Szklennik wore No. 4 for Kettle Run. He tried to wear the jersey number again as a 6-foot-1, 175-pound senior.

That didn't work.

"It wasn’t fitting me," he said. "I was bigger. In the weight room, I added weight."

So Szklennik instead wore No. 7 as a senior. He produced 27 goals and nine assists for the Cougars.

"It definitely helped being able to keep defenders off my back," Szklennik said of his physical size.

Remarkably, Szklennik had a goal or assist in 17 of Kettle Run's 19 games this past season.

"To be honest, what I expected from him every game was a goal," Cougars coach Philip Roper said. "Whoever we were playing, I’m pretty sure the guy they game-planned for was Evan."

Regardless, Szklennik set Kettle Run's career goals record. He also finished with 25 career assists, which ranks third all-time in program history.

"He was very unselfish," Roper said. "He worked pretty hard to set up his teammates."

Helping teammates often helped Szklennik score himself. With the ball at his foot, two or three defenders would often collapse around Szklennik, so the striker would quickly move the ball to a teammate and disperse those defenders.

"And, bam, he would take off," Roper said. "With his speed, he beat most guys. That's how he scored most of his goals."

Szklennik's speed developed at a very young age. He began playing soccer as a 3-year-old and joined a travel team by age 9. Even then, he produced goals prolifically, and he credits early training with his father for that success.

When Szklennik first kicked a ball, his dad made sure he did so with both feet.

"Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot," Szklennik said. "You don’t want to be one dimensional. He always worked with me."

Szklennik eventually began his high school career in 2010 at Osbourn Park. He scored six goals as a freshman, but then transferred to Kettle Run. Roper saw Szklennik's scoring potential as soon as the sophomore showed up at Kettle Run's preseason tryouts.

"When you see someone outrun everybody else and look like he's not putting much effort into it, you know he's pretty good," Roper said.

Szklennik exploded for 28 goals and 11 assists as a sophomore and made the all-Region II first team. All the while he continued to play for his Loudoun 95 Red travel team, frequently commuting to Leesburg for practice after finishing sessions with his high school team. He followed that routine throughout his high school career, even during football season.

"It was kind of grueling," Mark Szklennik said. "After football, he’d grab something to eat and head out to a nice, long soccer practice."

Splitting time between those two sports helped Evan Szklennik excel in both. Playing football, for example, increased his strength on the soccer field. Playing soccer improved his agility, endurance and speed on the football field.

"He's just a good all-around athlete," Roper said. "I actually had encouraged him to play basketball. … Whatever sport he wanted, he probably could have played."

Szklennik, in fact, played basketball as a Kettle Run sophomore after logging a pair of seasons in middle school. He decided, however, to instead use the winter months of his junior and senior seasons to train as a transition from football to soccer.

Szklennik also devoted his summers to training. It all paid off as a senior when he accomplished the unique feat of being an all-state selection in both soccer and football.

"There’s no offseason – always working toward your goals," Szklennik said. "Ever since age 3, I haven’t taken a year off."

Becoming great

Philip Roper received a text message about a week after Kettle Run's boys soccer season ended in the semifinals of the 3A state tournament.

It was from Evan Szklennik, who thanked his coach for helping him shine as a senior.

"I said, 'You know the season’s over, you don’t have to brown nose anymore,'" Roper recalled with a laugh. "He said, 'No, seriously.'"

Szklennik does seem genuinely grateful to a lot of people who have helped him progress as an athlete, crediting everyone from Roper, Jeff Lloyd and other Kettle Run staff to his various teammates and family members.

His father, of course, gets special thanks after introducing Szklennik to soccer and football at a young age.

"He didn’t have a father there to teach him everything," Szklennik said of his dad. "But he’s been just that for me – by my side every step of the way."

Mark Szklennik played soccer and football in high school at J.E.B. Stuart and then Gar-Field. An all-met kicker, he went on to play football at Glenville State College in West Virginia.

Evan Szklennik said he's also grateful that Radford University stuck with him when a he made a poor decision as a junior. After committing to the Radford boys soccer team, Szklennik received an activities suspension at Kettle Run for an alcohol-related incident, he said.

So he played in only eight soccer games as a junior and missed the second half of the season. Without him, Kettle Run lost in the quarterfinals of the Region II tournament.

"It was terrible,” Szklennik said. "I hurt my family.”

Apologetic and feeling regret, Szklennik returned to the team as a senior.

"He played with much more fire because I think he realized he missed a really good opportunity last year and definitely wanted to make up for it," Roper said. "He became a very good leader."

Although Szklennik started at forward for three seasons with Kettle Run, he could move to the midfield for Radford. The Highlanders’ formation often features a forward and a similar attacking midfielder, he said.

"Your back to the goal as a forward is a tough position," he said. "I’m looking forward to maybe playing attacking midfield. If I have to, I think I can thrive.”

Szklennik also considered playing football in college after his break-out senior season attracted interest from some teams. Shepherd (W.Va.) and Virginia-Wise offered him partial scholarships to play Division II football while a handful of Division I teams showed interest, including Richmond and William & Mary, which offered preferred walk-on spots.

“I would have loved to see the kid play football [in college] because I think the ceiling is higher," Lloyd said. "I think if he would have perused that [walk-on opportunity], he would have become a scholarship kid."

Szklennik just couldn't turn his back on soccer, though.

"I loved football so much, but I had to make a choice," Szklennik said. "It was a fun ride, but it was short."

Szklennik played only five football seasons over his 17 years. He dabbled in the sport as an 8-year-old by joining a Manassas youth league team, but then he took a five-year hiatus. He returned to the sport as a high school freshman, joining the Manassas Park team as a kicker on the advice of his father.

"I wanted to follow in his footsteps," Szklennik said. "We kicked at the field every day, working on form and technique."

After transferring to Kettle Run, he remained solely a kicker as a sophomore. The following season, however, Kettle Run's coaches began to expand Szklennik's role. He moved into the starting lineup as a cornerback and wide receiver.

“To have a kid that versatile is rare, especial for a kicker,” Lloyd said. “He had a knack for being around the football. He’s an athletic kid that ran well and had very good hands.”

Szklennik had never previously played defensive back, however, so there was a learning curve.

“I looked stupid at first,” he said. “But my footwork and technique, they taught me all that and I enjoyed it.”

Szklennik finished his junior season as the Cougars' most reliable defensive back, Lloyd said.

Then Szklennik became an even bigger asset in the secondary as a senior when he moved from cornerback to safety. He was able to run sideline-to-sideline and better pursue balls in the air.

“He was just lights out,” Lloyd said. “Our most valuable player, hands down, on the defensive side.

“Great football intelligence,” Lloyd said. “He was able to see a play develop and jump the route.”

Along with his 10 interceptions, Szklennik finished with 37 tackles and two forced fumbles. As a receiver had 325 yards and four touchdowns on 20 receptions. As a kicker he made 34 of 38 extra points and 5 of 11 field goals. As a punter he averaged 34.3 yards on 45 attempts.

“I would have hoped he would have had a few more [scholarship] offers in football because of his versatility,” Mark Szklennik said. “How many kids do you see intercept a ball and take it down for a touchdown, and then kick the extra point?

“It’s so unique.”

- - - - -

The Szklennik File

Nickname: Slizzy. “Because when I got to Kettle Run … my last name was impossible to pronounce. It stuck with me my whole three years.”

Family: Father, Mark Szklennik, does field service management for Martin-Brower. Mother, Cena Rice, works for the Fairfax County government. Stepmother, Jan Szklennik, works in human resources for Search Technologies. Stepfather, Jeff Rice, is a Prince William County Public Schools electrician. Sister, Brooke Szklennik, 21, works for US Foods after graduating from Osbourn Park, where she played soccer. Sister, Bridget Rice, 9, attends Bennett Elementary.

Favorite place: Soccer field. “The best place in the world.”

Favorite athlete: Richard Sherman. “I love watching that dude. The passion he brings to it, and he plays my position.”

Favorite teams: Boston Red Sox and Celtics; Washington Capitals, Redskins and Wizards; and New England Patriots. "I like Boston teams because I have family in Boston – my stepdad's family. He got me on the New England bandwagon.”

Favorite music artist: Meek Mill. “He brings so much hype to his music. He's very emotional in his music and tells his story. He didn’t have the best life growing up and worked hard to get where he is. It's great music to get me ready for my games. And Drake is overall just amazing."

Favorite T.V. show: "All I watch is ESPN. … Even though I play soccer so much, I don’t watch too much. Because MLS, it’s not as great as the European [Football] League. I never really have time to catch the European games.”

Favorite food: Grilled chicken. “Nothing better. I like to grill.”

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