At about 1:45 p.m. Tuesday, the players from the Lincoln North Star boys soccer team took part in a walking pep rally that many wouldn’t have imagined the team being a part of just one year earlier.
But after the largest one-year improvement of any boys or girls soccer team in the state this year, the Gators will play in the Class A state tournament on Wednesday in Omaha. After winning only four matches last season, the Gators, ranked fourth, head to state with a 15-3 record. North Star will play No. 5 Millard West at 3 p.m.
So the soccer players got to be part of the Gator Walk, which has been one of the traditions since the school opened in 2003. The Gator Walk sends teams that have qualified in sports and other activities off to state. The girls tennis team, robotics team and a few other clubs joined in Tuesday.
For about 10 minutes the soccer team weaved its way through the halls and up and down stairs through the school led by Principal Vann Price, the cheerleaders and drum line. The students came out of the classrooms to see their peers walk by. The soccer players held up the plaque from the district championship they won last week. Some of the teachers slapped hands with the team’s proud coaches.
“It’s exciting, because the last time we had a Gator Walk for soccer was in 2009,” said senior goalkeeper Nathan Enriquez. “And it’s exciting for the alumni to see how great we’re doing this year.”
— Brent Wagner (@LJSSportsWagner) May 10, 2017
The soccer team has been a source of pride for the school during a year when several of the sports didn’t have great seasons. In the sports where teams qualify for state as a team from district competition, only the girls cross country and boys soccer teams have made it so far.
Last year’s season left a bad feeling for the players, coach Jason Brunott said. This season was different from the start. There was more talent. They played harder.
“I’ve always talked about how we’ve been competitive, but that next level is such a small percentage, but it’s a hard percentage to get over,” said Brunott, the third-year head coach. “Getting to state is very, very difficult. I think the guys had to take ownership, and believe in themselves. Now they see what their full potential is.”
This year the Gators have also embraced the diversity of the students at North Star, which has been of benefit to the soccer program.
The players talk about being from seven different countries, but playing as one. That would be the seven countries where the players were born or where their families came from — Bosnia, Brazil, Honduras, Iraq, Mexico, Turkey and the United States. The flags from the countries are sometimes displayed near the team benches.
Some of the players have told Brunott about growing up watching their fathers and uncles play soccer, and how much the sport means to their families.
“The whole idea is we come from different places, but at the end of the day we have a common goal out on the soccer field, and that’s to play our best soccer at Lincoln North Star,” Brunott said. “The flags are to honor their heritage, but also just to remember that we’re here representing North Star, and we appreciate diversity.”
Lucas Freitas lived in Brazil for 11 years before coming to North Star this year. His dad is Brazilian, and his mother American. His mom is a teacher in Lincoln. He’s played soccer his whole life.
“People there (Brazil) have a passion for soccer,” Freitas said. “People always love to play, and it’s basically their life because a lot of people in Brazil are poor and their only way out of it is through sports like soccer.”
Freitas is new to the school but has learned that seasons like the ones he’s been part of aren’t normal at North Star.
“It’s huge. Huge. Very huge,” he said. “It’s only the second time we’ve even qualified for state, so being able to do it for only the second time, and possible even winning it for the first time ever, is amazing.”
Midfielder Hozan Qaedi, whose family came from Turkey, couldn’t understand everything about his new school when he arrived, but he knew soccer.
“Hozan, two years ago (he’s English language learner 1) and he didn’t understand anything I was saying, but he understood soccer,” Brunott said. “So for him to come out on the soccer field and just do the things he did without being able to communicate really to his peers was pretty amazing. Now he’s ELL 2 or 3, and understands English and you can carry on a conversation with him, so to see that growth is pretty neat. They’re from different countries and languages, but they’re familiar with soccer. It’s a world sport.”
The coach is also trying to help the players by holding them to a higher academic standard than required. No players have missed matches this year due to academics, Brunott says.
But the program did have to forfeit one match this season due to a player participating in a match outside of school competition during the season. The player played in a Sunday rec league, Brunott said, not knowing he could not. The ruling from the NSAA did not occur until after districts. That dropped the Gators from the No. 3 seed for the state tournament to No. 4.
The team has added a few new players to the team that have helped. Luka Nedic played for his school team this year, instead of his club, like he did last year. Khobi Ceballos transferred from Lincoln Southeast. Mirzad Osmanovic has played well as a freshman. But it also helps to have a player like Jonathan Velasquez, who is one of the leading goal scorers in the state with 27.