Ethan Cohen and Jack Ratterman, both 16, have devoted most of their lives to soccer, and now that devotion – and talent – has propelled the teens onto Team USA’s youth boys’ soccer team at the upcoming 20th Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Dubbed the “Jewish Olympics,” the Games run from July 4 to 18, with Team Maccabi USA expected to send more than 1,100 athletes to compete against 10,000 other athletes hailing from more than 80 nations.
Cohen and Ratterman’s road to the Games began when they were just 6 and has extended to their Chaparral High School team, club play with SC del Sol (a local competitive youth soccer club) and the Maccabi Arizona team.
“My older brother played, and I just kind of jumped right into it as early as I could,” said Cohen, a junior at Chaparral High and a member of Congregation Beth Tefillah. “I never thought of quitting because I always loved it.”
Ratterman, a sophomore at Chaparral High and a member of Temple Solel, loves all aspects of the sport, even practice.
“What always struck me about Jack is you have these kids, including me in my athletic days, who are, ‘I don’t want to go to practice,’ ” said Ratterman’s father, Jeff. “But not Jack. He always wanted to leave early and get to practice sooner.”
After being told about the Maccabiah Games by one of their coaches, Cohen and Ratterman headed to Los Angeles in January to compete for just 20 spots on the team. Tryouts were also being held in Philadelphia.
“It was over two days and on the first day I was nervous, because I didn’t think I played very well,” Cohen said. “But on the second day, I got comfortable and started playing better. I wasn’t surprised to be picked, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if I didn’t make it. Between both trials there were like 100 kids trying out for 20 spots.”
While Cohen may be taking his selection in stride, Ratterman is feeling a bit awed.
“It took me a few weeks to realize I had accomplished something that not everyone can do,” he said. “I think it will make me a better player. By playing at a super-high caliber, I will hopefully be able to share those skills with my teammates here in Scottsdale.”
Neither teen has ever visited Israel, so they are excited that the first week of their three-week participation in the Maccabiah Games will include time for sightseeing.
Ratterman says he’s expecting to be left “speechless seeing everything. It’s going to be very cool.”
Cohen is equally excited.
“I’ve always heard about it, and I always wanted to go to Israel, and finally I’m going,” he said. “I haven’t practiced my Hebrew a lot, but I think if I touched up on it, I could maybe say a few things, but not too much.”
The teens will be leaving Arizona on June 25, with their parents following later. However, it won’t be a family vacation, as the teens will be operating under a highly regimented schedule during the Games. They will be staying at a hotel in Haifa, while a youth village erected on the beach there will serve as the staging area for transportation to events, trips and other recreational activities. Ratterman said that he’s looking forward to connecting with the other members of his team.
“We’ll make a brotherhood and we’ll be brothers for a three-week stand. We’ll work together as a team and hopefully we can strive together to get a medal,” he said.
“Being able to represent your religion and the sport that you love – it means a lot to me.”
Janet Perez is a freelance writer based in Phoenix.