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Prep star Bone looks forward to ACC challenge

Coach Kevin Smith lowers his voice and speaks as though the player sitting next to him can't hear what he's about to say.

"He thinks he's a bit of a basketball player," Smith says about Corben Bone, poking fun at his star midfielder.

The 18-year-old from Plano, Texas, opens his mouth to contest.

"But he's too small for basketball," Smith continues, his voice rising. "He had some game, but that was it."

"I'm pretty good," the 5-foot-9 Bone says in his own defense.

"He was a tremendous basketball player," Smith says. "But I think that he saw his future was in playing soccer."

It certainly was -- and that future is just beginning.

Bone was recognized earlier this month as the 2006 National Youth Player of the Year by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America at their annual convention. Past recipients of the award include Freddy Adu, Mike Grella (Duke) and Ofori Sarkodie (Indiana).

"Corben fits that pedigree very well," said David Bokhart, NSCAA national chair for the youth boys All-American program. "He's got national team experience. He's represented us at the U-17, U-18, U-20 [national team] level. He's been overseas for numerous camps and tournaments. He's a member of the Region III team and the leader of one of the best club programs in the country."

The NSCAA youth player of the year is selected from the 80 all-American players. The adidas Elite Soccer Program plays a large role in the decision-making process, but input is also solicited from college coaches to national and regional team coaches.

The award came as a complete surprise to Bone. He received the same e-mail that the other all-American players did notifying them of their selection. He and two teammates from his Solar Soccer Club team earned the honors.

"So I was excited for all of us," Bone said. "That was a big accomplishment. Then, about a day later, we got an e-mail that said, 'Congratulations, along with that, you're the national player of the year.' I was blown away.

"I didn't really even know there was a national player of the year," Bone said. "Once I got it and saw the previous winners ... I was just like, 'Wow, to be in the category of those players is a great accomplishment.'"

It's a recognition those around him believe is well-deserved.

"He won this award, and it wasn't a fluke," Smith said. "He makes things happen. He's explosive. He doesn't give himself enough credit about defense. He does track back because he knows he's got to be the complete player."

Bone plays an attacking midfield role, and while he's looking to improve defensively, he cites scoring goals as an area of weakness. That's something he's working on as he prepares to head off to Wake Forest in the fall.

"I think I can put myself in pretty good places to score goals," Bone said. "I just have to finish executing."

Nevertheless, his abilities are still impressive -- as demonstrated by his near unanimous selection as player of the year.

"[Bone] has some qualities that your typical U.S. player doesn't have," U-18 men's national team coach Bob Jenkins said. "He likes to attack. He's comfortable attacking, and his feet are good so he's able to break players down individually."

In addition to the technical skills, Bone has the type of personality that makes him coachable. He enjoys being a leader and role model almost as much as the flashy stuff he gets to do on the field.

"He's been a treat to coach," Smith said. "You don't have to motivate him. He's very self motivated. He loves the game. He wants to do very well, and ultimately, he wants to be a professional soccer player one day."

Bone's drive to improve himself has played a large role in his success. His house is a quick bike ride from a nearby soccer complex, and Bone recalled heading to the park almost everyday to "just dribble with the ball or something. Self motivation is the key I think and wanting to get better."

That desire to become a better player has been evident to his coach from almost the beginning. The results of those efforts are obvious.

"The day he came in [to the Solar program], he was a good player in our league, but he wasn't the best player in our league," Smith said. "He's just grown and grown as a soccer player. Now he's not just one of the best players in the league, he's one of the best players in the country in his year coming out."

Bone was highly recruited by the nation's top programs. He settled on the Demon Deacons and already is looking forward to the 2007 season.

"All my friends from the national team, the regional team, the club teams are going to the ACC," Bone said. "We're all going to be playing against each other. It's going to be great competition. Just to be able to play in a league like that where everything is on such a high level, it's going to be really fun."

It's also going to make it worth having to give up his second favorite sport.

"Last year was my last year playing basketball," Bone said. "I felt like soccer was my ticket and I needed to stay away from injuries. But sticking with soccer was a good choice."

It certainly seems that way.

Maria Burns covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.