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.

Coach Hammond looks up sharply from his calculus book.

"But they will."

In the coming weeks, Hammond will try and organize a soccer club so the team can play together during the off-season. He and Coach Miller will also continue counseling and pursuing college scholarships for the older boys.

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."

Though all of the team members say they'd like to go back to their home countries, all seem resigned to the fact that they probably never will. So Edin Coralic plans to attend Lindenwood University and become an architect, and Mahdi Botan wants to study computer engineering. Vedmir Vranjkovina says he doesn't know what he wants to do yet, but Mirza Bijedic is sure: "I want to go to West Point," he says jutting his chin seriously into the air. "I want to become a military officer."

In the meantime, Hammond plans to finish his own schooling for his teaching certificate and to make sure his team stays emotionally and physically in shape.

"I was pretty hard on the kids, because I wanted them to learn something," Hammond says. "They had to learn that they couldn't just go out there and play randomly, out of control; there had to be a point. Even if we had to take someone off the team for a small amount of time to teach them a lesson, it's better than having them play and not learn anything."

The coach's next challenge now is getting the players to sell candy bars to raise money for the soccer club. If they can raise enough money, they won't have to scrounge next year for tape and shoes and jerseys, but the players, verging on adulthood now, complain bitterly about the process.

The coach understands that it's hard to be 17 and have to sell chocolate bars in the school hallways, but hey, that's life, and sometimes life is tough.

When Hammond tells the team it's time to get back to their normal classes, the complaint can be heard all the way down the hallway. "Pleeease let us stay. Pleeease, pleeease, pleeease.""I'm doing great in class, Coach. I don't need to go back."

"I have no homework, Coach. Pleeease let us stay."

Hammond, still unsmiling, issues his second and final "Time to go." As they slink out the door single-file, Mahdi Botan looks back into the room.

"We know how to play soccer, you know."

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