FORESTVILLE – As the International High School at Langley Park (IHSLP) school bus finished its 25-minute bus ride, pulling up in front of an empty soccer field at an abandoned school, Antonio Cruz zipped out, headed toward the goal posts and dared his teammates to score against him.
One-by-one, the junior, 17, made save after save with ease before being corralled by his coaches to start warmups. He smiled after the last save, getting up off the grass and joining his teammates.
For Cruz, the empty field was more than just your average training pitch. Since arriving to the United States three years ago, the junior has used soccer as a coping mechanism, as he misses his family that remains in his hometown of San Miguel, El Salvador.
“This is my second home,” Cruz said in Spanish. “It could be a three-hour trip before we play soccer but we desire to play so if we are on it, it’s our home.”
While reaching the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) Regional Finals in their first season as a varsity sport is an accomplishment, the IHSLP boys’ soccer team sees it as a starting point. The team, comprised of students from varies countries from around the world, use soccer as a sanctuary and now, with a new home field, aspire to become champions.
IHSLP’s stunning success last season – its first at the varsity level – included an 8-2 regular season record playing all road games, defeating sectional leaders Potomac, 2-0, on Oct. 18, 2016 and being ranked No.1 in the 1A North state playoff bracket.
For Assistant Principal and Head Coach Daniel Sass, the success was not shocking, as the team’s possession-based style had disoriented opponents as a junior varsity team in the school’s opening year, leading to a 9-1 record.
“That was a wake-up call that we had something really special growing here,” Sass said. “But it was definitely a growing process. The first time we lost a game, they had tears as they weren’t used to dealing with adversity in the soccer field. But we’re slowly growing a disciplined program.”
Most IHSLP students are recent arrivals, immigrants or refugees recommended by the county offices, according to Sass. Situated in a group of 12 trailers behind the Annapolis Road Academy alternative high school, IHSLP opened in August 2015 with its main focus on helping students with limited English language skills adjust to their new educational settings.
Midfielder and captain Yaya Diabagate was born in the United States but returned back to the Ivory Coast at a young age. While he returned to the county during his middle school years, he struggled in an American high school setting.
At IHSLP, the junior, who scored 11 goals last season, feels comfortable speaking English and looks forward to adding Spanish to his repertoire, thanks to playing on the team.
Sass said while most of his players are Latinos from Central and South America, some of his players also come from the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East. While language could be a barrier for some, IHSLP relies on its players’ growing English skills with their soccer acumen to translate to victories on the field.
Most of the junior class players have been together since the program’s inception. Slowly, the team has continued building chemistry and added new players, like midfielder Santos Muños, to build off their success.
“There is more responsibility and pressure playing with your school than playing for fun,” Muños, 16, said in Spanish.
The Cinderella story ended last season in a heartbreaking 6-0 loss against Patterson Mills in the regional finals. The game was tied in the second half, where the pains of a long season and the physicality of their opponents took a toll on IHSLP.
“Everyone in (the state playoffs) as bigger than us,” Diabagate said. “Playing in the county, we were all little but in the playoffs, we were playing bigger guys and games got a little more serious.”
The closure of Forestville High School worked in the team’s favor as the county granted IHSLP access to its gym, weight room and fields for its athletic programs this year. Now, with its own home field and workout facilities, the team hopes to build strength to match up with their county foes. Whether it is meeting a 4A power in the county championship or battling in states, IHSLP feel prepared to take on all competition.
“We are playing two seasons this year. We have our regular season and our playoffs,” Sass said. “I want to play a game under the lights for the county championship, as it would be good experience for the boys, but at the end of the day, if my starting 11 are healthy for November, we will be a good shape.”
Soccer Notes: Junior Sebastian Elney scored the game-winning goal in overtime to give No. 6 Maryland Men’s Soccer a 3-2 victory over No. 15 UCLA, at Ludwig Field on Sept. 1. In front of 7,532, the fourth-largest crowd in stadium history, Maryland (3-0) struck first with goals by junior Gordon Wild (via PK) and freshman Eric Matzelevich for a 2-1 lead. The Terrapins have three more home games before going on the road, including their Big Ten league play opener against Indiana on Sept. 8.