Kenny Barnabee learned how to play soccer in China, and now he’s back stateside trying to help Long Beach Poly win its first Moore League title in 15 years.
“It’s an experience that not many people get to have, and an experience I won’t ever forget,” Barnabee said. “I lived in China. Who would’ve thought? I’m just very grateful to have that opportunity.”
Barnabee was born in Long Beach as a middle child who grew up playing multiple sports because his friends played multiple sports. After Barnabee spent a few summers with the Long Beach Little League All Stars he considered himself a baseball player, but all of that changed when he was in sixth grade.
When his mom, Jo, got a promotion, the entire Barnabee family relocated to China where Kenny was enrolled in a school with ties to Jo’s company.
“I was pretty angry,” Barnabee said of the move. “All of my friends were here and I was in a world that doesn’t even speak the same language. It was a weird transition. But once I got over there, I made friends that I still text today.”
Barnabee stayed connected with his Long Beach friends through late-night video game marathons, and made most of his new friendships on the Chinese athletic fields. But they didn’t play baseball in China.
“The only baseball I played over there was when I coached less privileged local kids for community service,” Barnabee said. “I was teaching some kids who were two years younger than me.”
The void in his baseball identity needed to be filled, and Barnabee said he really only had one option because most of the kids at his new school were from Europe and played soccer.
“I just had that edge of wanting to get better at soccer and compete with the Europeans,” Barnabee said. “They bullied me a little bit until we got into other units in P.E. and I was kind of dominating them in everything else.”
Barnabee said learning a new sport, and teaching his new friends old ones, was the purest sense of joy in a strange land.
“I play to have fun,” Barnabee said. “If my friends played sports, I would want to play it with them. But I’m also that kid who doesn’t want to be bad at a sport. If I’m going to play a sport I’m going to try my best to be good at it.”
It took a tournament win in Singapore for Barnabee to find out he had talent on the soccer pitch. He was approached by several European academy coaches after the tournament, and that’s when he realized he might have a future in the sport. However, he didn’t want to have a future anywhere but Long Beach.
The Barnabee family moved back to California just before Barnabee started his sophomore year of high school, and he said it was like picking up where he left off.
“I had left my passions behind,” Barnabee said of leaving Long Beach. “I felt like I was coming home, to be back with my old friends and back the way I wanted it. I felt like I fell right back into my rhythms.”
Barnabee said he jumped into baseball and soccer club teams in order to improve and play both varsity sports at Long Beach Poly. It took him awhile to find his footing on the baseball diamond, but he excelled every time he stepped on the soccer field.
“He’s a bulldog up top and a lot of teams are going to have a hard time dealing with that kid,” Poly coach Eric Leon said.
The junior forward has scored seven goals this season, while racking up double digit assists thanks in part to his long throw ins.
“I use physicality and speed to bully kids and score goals,” Barnabee said. “I know my role.”
Barnabee’s role is expanding for the Poly baseball team, and he has earned a starting spot in the Jackrabbit outfield during tournament this offseason.
“He’s a raw athlete,” Poly coach Brent Lavoie said. “He could end up hitting in the No. 2 hole for us this season.”
Barnabee said he wants to keep playing both soccer and baseball in college where he also wants to study physical therapy or engineering, like his parents. He added that the experience of living in China has prepared him for almost anything.
“I made new friendships and learned so many things that I couldn’t learn in the United States,” Barnabee said of his time abroad. “I got immersed in a different culture and new way of life. I was forced to adapt and I’m smarter for it.”
Poly (13-4-4, 6-2-1) has been playing a smart brand of soccer to move to the top of the Moore League standings just behind Millikan (20-2-3, 7-1-2) with a game in hand. The Jackrabbits also face the Rams in the regular season finale next week.