NORMAL — When Normal Community High School soccer coach Matt Chapman saw he had scorers, he looked for someone to set them up.
Surprisingly, he chose his top scorer from 2016, Josef Halcomb, to become a defensive central midfielder. The switch helped turn an 11-7-6 regional runner-up into an 18-6-3 sectional champion.
That's one reason The Pantagraph, for the second straight year, has named Halcomb the Area Player of the Year.
A share-the-ball type, Halcomb joined Normal West’s Jordan Walker and University High’s Nathan Clay as the area’s only Illinois High School Soccer Coaches Association all-staters.
“Josef has been the highest rated player in our section the past couple years,” Chapman said. “Those that have seen him understand his talent. He’s such a difference maker.”
The position switch explains why Halcomb went from having 24 goals and seven assists as a junior to 11 goals and 17 assists as a senior. His assist total this year ranked second in the area.
Chapman came into the season hoping to use Halcomb, a proven finisher, as a facilitator.
“When other guys were scoring and he was setting things up — helping win balls and controlling our passing in the midfield — that was when we were at our best,” Chapman said.
Halcomb ended his fourth year as a starter with 54 career goals and 39 assists for teams that went a combined 69-20-12.
The unanimous all-Big 12 Conference star was a member of the only two sectional championship teams in school history. This year’s group reached the Class 3A Elite Eight while the 2014 squad took second in the state.
"I will always remember high school and how fun it was to play with some of the great players I was able to play with," Halcomb said. "Going to state my freshman year was something I will always remember."
Chapman believes opponents had an easier time marking Halcomb in 2016. This year, he could use his speed, guile and anticipation to initiate attacks from the defensive end.
Chapman frequently asked his assistant coaches how Halcomb managed an amazing maneuver.
“Many times he would draw two or three defenders his way and then just slide the ball right into the open space for one of his teammates to run onto and create an opportunity,” Chapman said.
The importance of helping others is something Halcomb experienced off the field when the family of Phil and Lynn Halcomb adopted him from an Ethiopian orphanage.
"I was able to go back to Ethiopia this summer for the first time since coming to the U.S.," he said. "I definitely want to go back and visit again because that is where I grew up and it's a big part of who I am.
"Most importantly, I have a brother, sister and nephew back in Ethiopia so I want to see them as often as I can."
In America, Halcomb found a kindred spirit in Chapman.
"He always makes the best decision for the team and I am very grateful for everything he has done for our team and especially for me," Halcomb said. "No matter what happens on the pitch, he cares more about the player than the game."
Chapman says Halcomb brought more than talent to NCHS.
“I’ve learned a lot about what the possibilities are just from coaching him," the coach said. "He loves to share things about the game that he knows. I’ve become a better coach just by being around him.”
The 5-foot-7, 125-pound Halcomb is reserved, but when he speaks, his words carry weight.
Chapman remembers prior to the sectional final "it was really calming for everybody when he said, ‘Hey, no matter what, we’re still in this game. Even if they score first, it will be fine. Don’t worry about it. Don’t panic.’”
The Ironmen didn't as they rallied to win. Backing them all the way was a former front man who nevertheless found the spotlight in a supporting role.