The tip-off that Anthony Preston might have a future in soccer came months before his first birthday when he uttered his first word.
From the time Preston started walking, his dad Tony was there to encourage him with a ball at his foot. Just look at where that got him.
The 18-year-old midfielder and Prince George native is about to make his debut playing university soccer with the UNBC Timberwolves. Preston will be with the T-wolves when they touch off their preseason this weekend in Kamloops. But he won't be a bench-warmer. This is Preston's chance to show he's ready to make the jump to playing U Sports soccer.
"Obviously it's a lot faster than the level I've been playing at in P.G. but it's good because I'll be playing with players who are sort of on the same wavelength as me, which means we can probably play better soccer," said Preston.
"I've been training hard because it's a lot harder to see the same results against much better defenders. I've been working a lot on my shooting and my passing and I've been training with a couple guys on the team on my own time."
Preston joined the Prince George Youth Soccer Association as soon as he turned the legal age - three - and he's been a part of the youth soccer scene ever since, climbing the ranks from mini soccer to the Prince George under-18 boys team - the highest-calibre team in the PGYSA ranks. Preston played through the winter in the Whitecaps Academy and thrived under the coaching of Rob Lewis, Todd Kuc and before that, John Ribeiro. In May, the U-18s brought home the Slurpee Cup championship from Kamloops.
It became obvious to Preston and his family early in his youth career that playing a short outdoor season from May to July was not going to give him what he needed to develop into the player he is now. To keep pace with the best of his provincial age group peers he needed to play in a league that offers an outdoor season that starts in February and ends in early July. To do that and keep his Prince George address required frequent trips to the Lower Mainland and his parents, Ann and Tony, made that possible, flying and driving him to Surrey for weekend games and practices. For three years from Grade 6-8 he was a soccer commuter playing for Surrey United in the B.C. Premier Youth League. He took a break from the travel for a few years but returned to the Premier League as a 16-year-old and played the next two seasons in the Metro league in Vancouver for Fusion FC. All that time, all those touches with the ball playing outdoors with the best of his age group, was not wasted on Preston.
"It was quite a bit of traveling but it definitely is the reason I'm kind of used to playing at the speed I need to play at," he said. "I think it was probably the most important thing I've done and I have my parents to thank for that.
"It made me do training on my own. It was an eye-opener to have people as good as you or better, trying to beat them. They exposed my weaknesses and I'm finding it's the same at university. I'm finding out what my weaknesses are. The biggest thing is I have to work on my strength and the physical side of the game."
Playing in the Premier League provided a high-level opportunity but his drive to succeed and the effort he put into making himself a better player put him on UNBC's radar. He's being groomed as an attacking midfielder for the T-wolves.
"Anthony's a bit of a unique player, some would say he's a great pickup as a local player but he's just simply a great pickup and the fact that he's local is just a bonus to the community," said UNBC head coach Steve Simonson. "He's just a bright, young, talented kid but he's not just a flashy player, his tenacity is great and his resilience is fantastic and he's got a creative brain. He loves the game and has an absolute burning desire to play the game so there's no problem with motivation - he's an absolute dream to work with."
The five-foot-11, 145-pound Preston topped all T-wolves in the yo-yo fitness test, a grueling speed and endurance drill that went on for about 20 minutes - as long as he could last.
"He's tremendous on the ball, his vision is great, his dribbling's good and his finishing is good," said Simonson. "Like any young kid he'll notice a jump up in the quality of the opposition and so as long as he can understand that it won't always go smoothly for him, he'll rise to it."
Once Simonson made Preston the offer to join the T-wolves there was no doubt. He had his mind set on going to UNBC, where he will be studying sciences while playing in front of his friends and family. He's been training with the T-wolves for nearly a year and he knows most of his teammates well, before he's played his first game with them.
"Steve has been stressing how important it is for us to play for each other and have a good environment, so I wouldn't be intimidated by any of the senior players just because they're so welcoming," said Preston.
"It's a really nice environment to make mistakes in, especially as a first-year."