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If you had told Wake Forest soccer fans a year ago that another member of the Harkes family was set to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, they might have shaken their heads and muttered, “Not again.” Like many other ACC schools, Wake Forest’s men’s and women’s soccer teams had been torched in the 1980’s by the University of Virginia, whose teams were largely propelled by John and Cindi Harkes.

Yet the ascendence of John and Cindi’s son, Ian Harkes, has Demon Deacon supporters licking their chops this time around. The Gonzaga High star officially committed to Wake Forest last Wednesday, taking the Harkes-ACC soccer connection in a new direction.

Ian’s father, John Harkes, was the national player of the year at Virginia in 1987 before embarking on a stellar professional career that carried him through England, D.C. United and the U.S. men’s national team. His mother, Cindi, a W.T. Woodson High School graduate and three-time all-ACC selection at Virginia, is a member of the Virginia-D.C. Soccer Hall of Fame.

John and Cindi helped guide Ian through the recruiting process during this past year, but they never pushed him to go to the school that launched their own professional success. Rather than attempt to mold him into a reflection of their past, the two Fairfax residents always encouraged their son to choose his own path.

“There was never any real push for me to play soccer,” said Ian, who chose Wake Forest after considering Virginia, St. John’s, Harvard and Duke. “I just kind of took interest in it and they went with that. There was never any indication of ‘I have to play soccer and follow in my dad’s footsteps’ or anything like that.”

Even with all the soccer DNA coursing through his veins, Ian dabbled in other sports in his youth before fully devoting himself to the world’s game in high school. He played basketball for a while and tried baseball out for one tortuous season. He even gave rugby a shot during his freshman year at Gonzaga, although that came when he was about nine inches shorter than his current 5-foot-11 height.

“That was a lot of fun, but after the first year everyone got really big and I didn’t want to get killed out there,” he said.

Ian was always more comfortable with a ball at his feet than one in his hands. His natural feel for soccer was honed at the club level when he played for Braddock Road Strikers, Great Falls Strikers and Herndon Real Juniors.

Sound technical ability made Ian a solid soccer player, but he really began to blossom during high school as his body grew to match the prodigious skill it possessed. After being named the first junior captain of Scott Waller’s 13 years coaching at Gonzaga, Ian racked up 16 goals and 14 assists on his way to earning D.C. Gatorade Player of the Year honors. He took on a more defensive role during a senior season in which he led the Eagles to an 18-1-1 record that culminated in an overtime win against DeMatha in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title game.

Now Ian is gearing up for a final stint with the D.C. United Academy U18 team, which begins its season in March.

“It’s really nice to see him develop from a 13-year-old that wasn’t all that athletic all the way to being one of the top recruits in the country and certainly one of the top players in the MLS academy,” said Tom Torres, the D.C. United Academy’s U16 coach who coached Ian’s U14 Herndon Real Juniors team. “He’s got a lot of ability and a lot of intelligence. That’s one of the things that everybody always talks about is that he’s got an intelligent soccer brain. You couple that with his abilities and his tactical awareness, and it makes for a very fine soccer player.”

After having played at the Academy for two seasons, Ian ran into a conflict last fall when a new rule prevented Academy players from simultaneously playing high school soccer. He ended up getting a waiver to finish out his prep career at Gonzaga, and now he’s gearing up to return to the intense environment of MLS academy club soccer. The D.C. United Academy is designed to develop the top players in the Washington region to prepare them for the club’s First Team or the country’s top college teams. According to Torres, about 90 percent of Academy high school graduates go on to play for Division I schools.

Some of Ian’s Academy teammates played against him at the high school level. Rafael Fagundo, who is also bound for Wake Forest next year, played for Paul VI Catholic, as did Kennedy O’Shea.

“I think they both have helped me shape my game a lot,” said Ian, who has one sister, Lauren, playing varsity soccer as a sophomore at O’Connell and another, Lily, playing travel soccer in seventh grade. “I think high school [soccer] is great. I think we’re kind of fortunate that our level of play was still really good. Gonzaga has a great program, and we play good competition in the WCAC. But the Academy is definitely another level of intensity. They kick it up a notch, so it’s a little more intense. It’s just a different commitment level.”

With Gonzaga fading in the rear view, Ian must now use his time at the Academy to prepare for the next phase of his career.

“I’m just trying to advance my game as much as possible before I go down to Wake,” he said. “I need to make sure I have a good mentality going down there. It’s going to be a lot of work, and I know that I have so much room for improvement. I’m just grateful that I’m going to be in a good program at Wake. I’m just going to use this academy season to just try to be the best I can be right now.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com