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.

Down on the field, Coralic watched his team members fall into old habits. They weren't passing. They weren't communicating. On the energy of the panic, the street playing they grew up on kicked in. If they didn't score soon, it would be all over. Coralic understood the boys were scared and reverting to their pre-Hammond soccer-playing.

In the tower, Hammond's feeling of helplessness intensified as he watched his team deteriorate. Come on, guys, show me something. They got sloppy. They were so intent on scoring, everything he'd taught them -- the discipline, the cohesiveness, the planning -- seemed like worn-out textbook fodder.

Then Hammond saw Adnan Jahic start to move forward. No, no, no, he thought. As the sweeper, Jahic was supposed to stay back, was supposed to protect the goalie. How many times had he warned the 17-year old not to leave his area? All it would take was one good kick from the other team and for one of their players to run forward. Then it would be a one-on-one with Coralic, who was already worn out from playing the entire game.

Edin Coralic, center, surrounded by teammates Spahic Aldin, Armin Smajic, 
Vedmir Vranjkovina and Adnan Jahic after Soldan’s win over SLUH. "It was a great game," Coralic says. "We played as a team."
James Hammond
Edin Coralic, center, surrounded by teammates Spahic Aldin, Armin Smajic, Vedmir Vranjkovina and Adnan Jahic after Soldan’s win over SLUH. "It was a great game," Coralic says. "We played as a team."

For Jahic, there was no alternative. Time was running out. Because Rosary already had one point on them, no amount of defense would make any difference now. They had to attack, street-soccer-style, all of them together, and score.

Had they been playing together longer, Hammond knew, another teammate would have stepped back and taken Jahic's place. But six weeks wasn't enough time to kill what was instinct in these players. Rosary scored again, as Hammond predicted.

But as the coach looked down on the field and watched the tournament slip away, his feeling of helplessness gave way to a new realization.

"I realized they weren't quitting," Hammond says. "As a team they didn't quit, even to the end. Even when they were losing, they were trying to win. When the sweeper went forward, he was trying to win. They weren't passing, because they wanted to win."

And that was what he wanted them to learn. Life, like big games, wouldn't be won without a tough fight. They could never give up or they'd be left behind. These kids were young and undisciplined, sometimes arrogant and disrespectful, but as the 11 war-scarred men with whom he'd spent the past six weeks attacked the ball, he saw something much more important than the ability to pass well. He saw that they would survive. They'd come a long, long way from telling him to wait, and even though they weren't playing with the finesse of professionals yet, they never once gave up.

The Tigers lost, 2-0, but they lost together, and Hammond knew they knew why. After the game there were no lectures, no interrogations, no pep talks, no I-told-you-so's.

"Losing that game was enough," Hammond says.

The players pour into Coach Hammond's classroom kicking soccer balls and Bosnian one-liners back and forth across the room. The language sounds crisp, clean and complicated, and for someone who doesn't understand the words, sitting there feels like being caught in a verbal game of keep-away.

As book bags drop to the floor, each player, conscious of the reporter's presence, dramatically salutes the coach.

"Oh, man," Hammond says from behind his desk, "cut it out."

It's been a week since the team lost to Rosary, but instead of slinking to their chairs in embarrassed defeat, the players lean into each other and maneuver loudly for attention.

"Remember, I am the best player on this team."

"No, I am the best player on this team."

"No, you're not -- I am."

Each salute and pronouncement comes with a grin and sheepish glance at the coach. Hammond isn't smiling, though. He flips through his own homework for his calculus class that night.

Mahdi Botan, the Somali, sits off to the side wearing a Cardinals T-shirt and an expressionless face. He watches quietly as the coach, from behind his desk, orders the team to act like adults. When they finally wedge their endless arms and legs into the compact school desks, talk of the loss to Rosary revolves around the expected: Players were sick; the field was wet; the bench wasn't nearly deep enough.

Soon though, they have to forage for the right words to express a deeper understanding, and they search for each other's eyes.

"I felt bad that night. I felt real bad," says 16-year-old Alen Niksic, the team's right halfback. "We used to think the coach was running us too much, but he really did teach us. It's all about teamwork; he told us that from the beginning, you know, that you can't do it all by yourself. It's got to be all of us."

Adnan Jahic breaks in. "If we had played as a team against Rosary like we did against Crossroads, we would have won."

All of the players nod.

"I really thought we would win," says Mirza Bijedic as he looks to the teammates on his left and right. "We learned a lot, though. We learned that we weren't unbeatable."

"And this year, we just met in September," says Vedmir. "All of the other teams were playing in the summer." He shrugs. "But it's a public school, so nobody cares."

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