A smile emerges on the face of coach Michael Kane as he gathers his North High School soccer players for a prematch huddle on a sunny September day at Ellet.
Kane is from Akron, graduated from Garfield in 1983, but in this situation, he is the minority ... as an American.
Twenty-nine of his 30 players were born outside the U.S. And English is the minority language with players born in six different countries.
Kane looks at his players in their new uniforms and shouts: “Who we are?”
His players respond loudly: “North!”
Kane retorts: “Black and gold!”
The teenagers fire back: “Vikings!”
Kane says: “One team!”
And the players come back with: “One goal!”
The chant takes place before and after matches, and also at halftime. It originates from former North coach Roberto Flores, a Mexican-American who speaks broken English and resigned last year to focus on other work.
The last part of the chant changes if the Vikings win, and is filled in with the amount of goals they score. On this day, the Vikings players yell: “Three goals” after a 3-2 victory over the Orangemen.
The chant fits this team that features players who all speak English, but some better than others.
The majority are Asian-born players, and several languages are spoken on the pitch and in the crowd gathered in the stands.
There is one American on this boys team, and junior Uriah Fitzpatrick is a 16-year-old girl.
Fifteen players are of Bhutanese descent who were born in Nepal refugee camps.
Nine are of Karen/Burmese descent who were born in refugee camps in Thailand.
Two others are of Burmese descent and were born in refugee camps in Thailand, and one was born in Burma and then moved to a refugee camp in Thailand.
“They are here legally,” Kane said. “They were brought in. The U.N. arranges this. They seek out host countries. They agree to bring in so many per year. Great Britain and Australia are other countries that are involved. They do this for humanitarian purposes.”
North Athletic Director Carrie Stewart said the players are part of the English Second Language Program that is offered at the high school.
“It is a lot of fun to learn about their different backgrounds and hear about where they come from,” Kane said. “I have learned about their foods, their religious cultures, their family cultures and other interesting aspects about their lives.”
North also has one player from Ghana and one from Uzbekistan.
“It is different being on this team, not being able to understand them a lot of the time, but I feel welcomed,” Fitzpatrick said. “When we go out on the soccer field, it is not like we are from different countries. We are all like one big family.
“This is my second year, and after a little while I got used to it. I got to know the guys and we have become friends.”
There are eight languages — Nepali, Thai, Hindi, Karen, Uzbek, Twi, Burma and English — spoken on the team.
“It can be difficult coaching this team,” Kane said. “Surprisingly, there will be differences between cultures that can come onto the field, but I work hard to get them to all understand that we are all here in a melting pot. We are one team and a team is what wins, not an individual.”
North is 3-3-0 this season with wins over Bedford, Smithville and Ellet. The losses have come to Cloverleaf, Woodridge and Firestone.
Ha San is the team’s leading goal scorer with six. Harka Tamang has four goals, and Dhan Rai has two goals. Chandra Subba is the leader in assists with two.
Kane, 47, is in his second year as coach after four years serving as an assistant.
He says nine players returned from last season: Fitzpatrick, Nazi Ahma, Krishna Chuwan, Kailash Ghimirey, Ehta Lomoo, O Zat Par, Chokey Rai, Dhan Rai and Phurba Tamang.
“A majority of the boys on this team are of Bhutan descent and born in Nepal,” Kane said. “They have Bhutan ancestors. With them being the majority on this team, they have their own little click or language going on. They converse with each other a lot.
“There is some commonalties between the Asian languages, so there is some amount of communications between the kids from different Asian countries. Even in Nepal, I am told there are over 100 different dialects. I thought I was going to learn some, but that is not going to happen anytime soon. A lot of the kids speak English pretty well. I have learned that if they are nodding and smiling at me, they did not understand me. I have done that to them too.”
When the line of communication breaks down, Kane will bring another player over to help translate.
“Soccer is called the world sport,” Kane said. “You don’t necessarily need to speak to play.”
From Nepal to the U.S.
Ghimirey is one of the 15 players who are of Bhutanese descent who was born in a Nepal refugee camp.
“It’s pretty fun being here,” Ghimirey said. “It is a much better place than our country. We were in a refugee camp. Now we are here and we have our own house. We can go and work and have money and buy our own stuff like cars and other things. In our country, we didn’t have a car and other things.
“Here we can get a good education and so many other things. I am learning how to fix cars by going to East High School [for part of the school day in a Career-Education program called Automotive Technology].”
Ghimirey, 16, said he arrived in the U.S. on April 7, 2009, the day after his 13th birthday.
“We absolutely adore Kailash,” Kane said. “He is just an absolute sponge. He grasps everything and is a very bright young man. I think he could be the President of the United States someday, but then my wife reminds me he wasn’t born here. So, I think he could be CEO of a company or something like that.”
Ghimirey said that his father speaks English fluently, and that he taught him and his sister how to speak the language when they lived in Nepal.
North High School has 810 students, Stewart said, and about 25 percent of them were born in an Asian country.
“Coach Kane has done a really good job with the entire population on North Hill, it’s not just the team members,” Stewart said. “He takes a real interest in a lot of people’s lives. He takes an interest in these kids’ lives outside of the soccer field and because of that they trust him. The families trust him to do a good job with their kids.”
North has seven English Second Language certified teachers: Stewart, Tao Nguyen, Allyson Fenner, Lisa Lin, Julie Pinney, Alma DeBlasio and Lynn Waid. Jeff Mitchell is a Social Studies teacher at the school and is also an ESL teacher.
True family effort
Kane does not have an assistant coach on staff. His wife, Lisa, is the “team mom,” and their two children, Megan (19) and Jillian (12), contribute as statistician and photographer, respectively.
“These kids are an absolutely well-behaved group of young men and women,” Kane said. “We don’t have any issues with discipline. Part of the joy is watching them go from a wallflower that speaks no English, to someone that I cannot shut up now. It is neat to watch them progress as young adults.”
Future U.S. citizens
Kane and Stewart each said that all of the players are full-time Akron residents and that they will likely pursue citizenship in the U.S.
“It is a great opportunity for these families, economically and educationally,” Kane said. “They are seeing freedom and opportunity for the first times in their lives. I think that is part of what attracts me to them and is a big reason why I want to help them. When they receive [a] gift, they are absolutely grateful and receive it with a smile on their face.”
Michael Beaven can be reached at 330-996-3829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the high school blog at http://www.ohio.com/preps. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MBeavenABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.