Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Atlantic City High School Boys' Soccer Team A Real United Nations


(Published in print in the United States – October 2003)

The world revolves much like a spinning soccer ball, and in one small part of southern New Jersey that analogy applies more to real-life social studies than a science lesson.
On the fields of Atlantic City High School, boys from all points of the globe gather to play on the soccer team and sample each other's wide range of cultures.
Colombia. Honduras. Jamaica. Liberia. Mexico. Bangladesh. Croatia. Peru. Argentina. And, of course, the United States.
Just a handful of the 16 players are American by birth. Most come from the countries mentioned, bringing with them a unique sense of soccer style as well as their everyday customs.
"We try to mesh together and become one as a team," says Tennyson Davis, a muscular 14-year-old sophomore from Liberia with a gleaming smile. "We try hard to combine everything."
During matches, many of the Vikings bark out directions to each other in Spanish. The team's three players from Liberia mix their regional West African dialects with English.
And head coach Kevin Semet, a 33-year-old native of Egg Harbor Township, lends his voice to proceedings while prowling the sidelines.
What emerges is a true sporting cacophony.
"In practice, the coach tells us what to do and those who understand him interpret for the others," Davis says. "Some of the kids who speak Spanish don't speak good English, but there's always somebody around to translate."
Brian Penagos, a tall, athletic 17-year-old junior who comes from Colombia, admits his native tongue just surfaces naturally on the field.
"It's your first instinct," he says. "All of us play soccer for fun when we're not in school, and Spanish is how we communicate."
Jose Pineda served as the Vikings' captain until he broke his right femur in a match against Buena Regional on Oct. 20. After rods were inserted into his leg through surgery, the 16-year-old junior from Mexico has had time to reflect on the eclectic nature of this team.
"It took a while to get used to each other," Pineda says. "But now, everybody seems to be responding pretty well. We finally got the team concept down after a while."
They sure did. Earlier this month, the Vikings beat Pleasantville, Holy Spirit and Millville in consecutive matches. It was the first three-game winning streak in the program's history, and it was accomplished in style.
In the 5-4 win over Millville, the Liberian trio put on a display of ball skills and speed inherent to the African game. The Central and South Americans employed their usual flair, especially in one-on-one matchups.
And Germaine Walker, a 16-year-old junior from Jamaica, wore a wide Caribbean grin while showing his opponents a steely determination to win battle after battle.
The Vikings still lose more games than they win. But there are tangible signs of progress. Goals from Walker and Penagos ensured a 2-2 home tie vs. Egg Harbor Township in a downpour Monday. The draw improved their record to 4-11-2.
Yet on the teamwork front -- the intangible part of the sport -- it has all come together.
"It took two years for this to happen," Walker says of the winning streak. "It takes time, but we all have the same goal in mind."
Holding this patchwork quilt together is Semet, who lives and breathes the sport while trying to instill in his players the benefits of discipline and hard work.
Coaching is more than a job to him. Semet treats it as a calling, whether it's filling his white pickup truck with players to attend MetroStars games at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford or securing support from local businesses in order to upgrade the Vikings' uniforms.
Quite often, the players' post-match trip to McDonald's comes courtesy of their coach.
"There's no question the talent is there with these guys," Semet says while dodging raindrops and giving shouts of encouragement to his players before Monday's game.
"It's my job to make them a cohesive unit. So many coaches try to use their players in a set system that doesn't suit them. I honestly believe you play the hand you've been dealt. Luckily with this group we can play creative, attacking soccer."
That suits Davis just fine. His remarkable skills were honed on the gravel roads of Liberia, often in his bare feet.
"When you did have a pair of cleats, you kept them for six or seven years," he says with a laugh. "If you split them, you would take them to a tailor so he could sew them up."
Davis dreams of playing professionally for Spanish club Real Madrid and following in the footsteps of French midfielder Zinedine Zidane, his favorite player.
"Soccer is such a major sport in the world," he says, his gaze wandering to faraway thoughts. "People here just don't know how big it is."
One of his teammate agrees wholeheartedly with those sentiments.
"We were all raised on soccer," Penagos says. "It means so much in our families, and the great part is we learn a little bit more about each other with every game we play."