El Cajon Valley State Champions, and American dream team of immigrants and refugees
This was not just any state championship. Nor was it the typical underdog story. The incredible journey of El Cajon Valley (ECV) High School’s boys’ soccer team from no-names to state champs is also a story so quintessentially American, it begs to be told. It is the story of a team of immigrants and refugees, and the sport that helped them find a home in a new place.
Norman Naeem and Matios Murad, both Braves seniors, are team captains of the winning squad. And although they both attend the same high school now, they once lived just fourteen miles apart from each other in Northern Iraq.
“We were in danger,” said Murad, whose family fled from the city of Mosul, Iraq to Lebanon in the early 2000’s. “We used to see guns, we used to see people killed in front of us. We were scared so we had to leave.”
Murad said he dreams of being a professional soccer player. If you ask him now, he will tell you soccer is life, but once it was just something to keep him occupied.
“I played in the street with friends in Iraq, but in Lebanon we had kind of a team,” he said. “It wasn’t a big team, we just played with each other.”
When his family immigrated, he joined a club team in middle school and then his high school team.
Naeem was raised in Batnay, a village just north of Mosul. His family, also provoked by the war, evacuated to Turkey before settling in El Cajon. It was here that he learned how to play soccer.
For Naeem, soccer was a way to help him find a community in the U.S., he said.
“We didn’t speak the language so it was hard,” said Naeem. “We started to make friends, and with our friends we would play soccer, and that friend would take us to play with his friend and from there we just started to meet people.”
Naeem has played for the Braves all four years of high school. Murad played a year at his high school in Michigan before finishing his last three years at ECV.
Head coach Antonio Lavenant said the team is a mix of boys from all over the world, including Mexico, Iraq and Syria. Some, he said, have been living in the States for less than a year.
“I have 17 players from other countries,” said Lavenant. “Only four were born in the US. Ninety percent fall under refugee status.”
But Lavenant said home origins made no difference when it came to coaching the team.
“To me, everybody’s a player,” he said. “If I ask you to do something, I expect you to do it...If you fall in line with the rest of the guys, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you’re just part of our team.”
And quite a team they turned into. The Braves were first seed in CIF, sitting out of the first round of playoffs on a bye. They went on to beat Mar Vista, 5-1, and Del Lago Academy, 4-1. Their CIF championship round against O’Farrell was a clean 2-0 victory.
“We played for a league title against Steele Canyon and that game was so important because we had to win,” said Lavenant. “There was no other way than to win to be league champions. The boys took it seriously and we prepared well for that game. I told them after that day, from now on, if you lose, you’re not a champion anymore. If you want to keep playing, you’ve got to keep winning. They invited the pressure and they felt it was their time to do it.”
Murad said he entered the season with a winning mindset and a singular goal: to put boys soccer on the banner in the gym.
“We didn’t even have a year on the banner,” he said. “For me, I wanted something written on that banner so I could come back and see it.”
An away match at Adelanto High School, the Southern California Regional Quarterfinal was a harder win, 2-1, but gave the Braves home field advantage for the semifinals against Smidt Tech on March 9.
Lavenant said playing in front of the home crowd was exactly what the boys needed.
“They kind of felt that acceptance and that motivation, like, why not us?” he said. “I think our boys stepped up to the challenge.”
In both the semifinal and final round against Santa Clara at California Lutheran University, the Braves scored early and played on that momentum to win 4-2.
“We play as a team and that’s the most important thing, especially for high school kids,” he said of his squad. “We just kind of turned it on and never looked back.”
Naeem said teamwork is a quality mostly instilled in them by their coach.
“We played together because of him,” he said. “All the drills that we did were just passes and that affected us a lot because we showed it on the field. We played as a team. Nobody was selfish. Everybody would play passes. Nobody would take the ball to score just for themselves. As long as we won, it didn’t matter.”
Although teamwork may look the same all over San Diego County, it sounds different when the Braves are playing. Because so many of the players’ first language is Arabic, Lavenant said that is what they tend to slip into when they practice. As long as everyone can understand each other, he said it does not matter what language they choose to use when the play.
“It’s interesting because now we have Hispanic players as well, and that’s pretty much our team,” he said. “They have learned a bit of the language and have understood how to ask for the ball in Arabic. Our team spills from Arabic to Spanish to English.”
Colleges have scouted both Murad and Naeem, and although they are making steps toward planning their futures, they said this part of the year has been difficult for them.
“We used to practice every day, two games a week, but now it’s finished and we have nothing,” said Naeem.
The game that did so much to bring people into their lives, like all seasons, has begun to fade out.
“We don’t play together anymore,” said Murad. “Everyone has to go his own way now.”
But while Naeem, Murad and their fellow seniors may be moving on, ECV is looking forward to another strong year. Of the 25 players they took to regionals, they will only be losing five. Lavenant attributes this to his openness in including kids on the varsity team.
“I like challenging my kids,” he said. “If you can play and you feel comfortable in varsity, you should be in varsity. I think next year we’re going to do jus as well. I don’t want to jump ahead, but I think we’re going to be a dangerous team next year.”
Lavenant said it is a nice place to be, since ECV is not normally seen as an athletic contender in the Grossmont conference.
“A lot of time, ECV doesn’t get anything special in sports,” he said. “But we’re here to be competitive for the next couple years.”
And whenever Murad returns home to his high school gym, he will see 2017 hanging from the banner of the boy’s soccer team.