A TEAM OF THEIR OWN

They fled war-torn nations and came to St. Louis. They pursued their passion for soccer at Soldan High -- and got a coach who didn't know the game. Then the real lessons began.

"I passed out pieces of paper to them inquiring about which position they wanted to play," Hammond says. "They put their names on the paper and the position, and then I told them to go ahead and get in position. As they did that, I took notes."

And he couldn't pronounce their names. No amount of discipline on his part could make up for the sheer volume of syllables in these kids' names. Trying to spit out the complicated twists and turns of Vranjkovina or Kafedzic across a field of Bijedics and Kukics and Nicsics was like trying to recite high-speed tongue-twisters with lemon wedges in his mouth. How could he yell at them like coaches were supposed to if he had to run through the entire list of names in hopes of finally hitting the right one?

One thing the coach did understand, though, was physical training. A decade in the military had taught him that. He figured that if he could start the team off with physical conditioning, he could catch up on the technicalities of the game later.

Mahdi Botan: "Before the fighting started in 1990, everything in Mogadishu was nice. We used to play soccer, me and my friends, every day. But then you could hear the shooting every night, and you couldn't sleep. I slept under my bed."
Mahdi Botan: "Before the fighting started in 1990, everything in Mogadishu was nice. We used to play soccer, me and my friends, every day. But then you could hear the shooting every night, and you couldn't sleep. I slept under my bed."

Every afternoon at 2:15, the team reported to the weight room. Strength was as important as speed, so Hammond required one circuit of the weight room every day. If players complained, they repeated the circuit. Next they ran up three flights of stairs, across the hall, down three flights of stairs on the other side and back again, 10 times. After that, they drilled. When they were late for drills, they ran laps. When they weren't late for drills, they ran laps. Finally came a scrimmage game on the field. If they touched the ball with their hands, 10 pushups. If they talked back, 10 more.

The players, who bragged that they learned to play soccer before they learned to walk, were appalled. To have this know-nothing American drill sergeant blowing whistles at them every time they turned around wasn't their idea of good soccer.

"From 2:30-4:30 it was practice every day," says one member of the team. "Weight lifting, then run laps, then stretching, then scrimmage. It was like being in the Bosnian army."

It wasn't exactly Sunday brunch for Hammond, either.

"They didn't want to run; they wanted to play soccer. They didn't want to do drills; they wanted to play soccer. They didn't want to do sprints; they wanted to play soccer," he says. "So at first I had to let them know, "OK, I understand that you probably know soccer better than I do because you've been playing for years. I'm a novice, OK? But I do know how to train people, and you all need to get in shape.'"

Hammond's insistence that the team work out every day as part of its training wasn't because the players weren't good. In fact, since the first loss to the SLUH junior varsity, they had won every game they played, with point margins that predicted a season sweep -- Soldan 10, Cleveland 0; Soldan 9, Gateway Tech 0; Soldan 10, Beaumont 0.

But these early victories were too easy, and the Public High League was not known for its soccer. What worried the coach most was that these wins bloated the players' heads with illusions of flawlessness.

"Like running," says Hammond. "When we first started, they didn't want to run. They'd say, "Do we really have to do this?" and I'd say yes and blow my whistle. I had to instill in them the team concept, so if one was running too slow, I'd make them all run more. I'd always say to the individual, "Don't let your team down.'

"Because these kids have the skills that they have, they don't feel that they have to worry about conditioning. They think they can work on skill alone," Hammond says. "The basic fundamental is that if you're going to win, you have to have the discipline, the conditioning to work as a team.

"But they thought they knew everything," Hammond says.

Indeed, the boys seemed to have welded their sense of self to their ability to play soccer. They might not speak English very well, might be behind in their schooling and have to work triple-time to catch up, but they could dribble a soccer ball better than most Americans, and they knew it.

"I learned to play soccer on the streets," says Vedmir. "That's the difference. In America you learn it in a club, but we learn it in the streets. It's different. It's technique.

"If you have technique, you can play soccer," he continues steadily. "Being strong and conditioned, everybody can do that if they practice, but if you play every day on a small field with your friends like I did, you learn to play what you think. You don't teach it in a book how to play; it's in your heart."

Hammond understood that although technique might enable the team to win against the other public high schools, whose soccer teams weren't as well endowed with experience, it wouldn't help them beat teams like SLUH. And that second scrimmage against SLUH was fast approaching.

Three weeks after practice began, the school informed Hammond that because he didn't have his teaching certificate yet, Mike Miller would be taking over as head coach. But Hammond, as assistant coach, continued the day-to-day training.

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