Abdi Shariff-Hassan’s long journey to UMass-Lowell’s soccer pitch

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 Justin Pelletier :Sunday September 2, 2018 (RBB NEWS)-Abdi Shariff-Hassan didn’t start for the UMass-Lowell men’s soccer team Friday night at Boston University. In fact, the sophomore has yet to start a game for the River Hawks.

Three years removed from receiving more high school accolades than almost any soccer player in Maine history, Shariff-Hassan could be frustrated.

But he’s not.

As much as he was accustomed to being a star player, he’s also used to overcoming adversity far greater than playing time.

“What he’s gone through, I can’t even begin to imagine,” River Hawks coach Christian Figueroa said.

Shariff-Hassan’s journey began in war-torn Somalia. He and his family fled to Kenya, and then emigrated to the United States, first living in Kentucky before moving to Lewiston, Maine, in 2007. There, he joined thousands of other new Americans who, through the millennium’s first decade, populated what had been a suffering northern New England mill city.

He and his family became part of a vibrant immigrant population that brought, among many other things, a love of soccer to an area known for its passion for hockey pucks.

RACIAL DIVIDE

It wasn’t always easy.

Refugees in Lewiston faced pushback from a vocal minority — something that, 17 years after the first group of Somalis relocated there, still dogs the city’s approximately 7,000 immigrants.

• In 2002, the sitting mayor wrote an open letter to the immigrant community, asking them to stop coming to Lewiston.

• In 2006, someone rolled a frozen pig head into a mosque while many muslims prayed.

• In 2007, a student at Lewiston Middle School tossed a ham sandwich onto a table occupied by Muslim Somalis.

• In 2012, the (different) sitting mayor said in an interview that immigrants should “leave their culture at the door.”

There was more, far less publicized hate. And Shariff-Hassan saw it all. But Shariff-Hassan and his family persevered. He befriended several others in his immigrant community, as well as many natives. Mostly, the common bond was soccer.

‘THE SEASON’

In the state final in the fall of 2014, a game during which adults and other students hurled racial epithets from the sidelines, the favored Blue Devils crumbled under the pressure.

The team’s coach, 30-plus-year veteran bench boss Mike McGraw, vowed on the team’s bus ride home that they’d be back — and that they’d win.

Shariff-Hassan started his senior season being named team captain, a role he embraced. He wasn’t flashiest player on the field – that wasn’t his style – but he was the linchpin.

It wasn’t easy. In all, players from six different countries – Somalia, Iraq, Turkey, Congo, Germany, United States) made the varsity roster that season, one that began, understandably, with heightened expectations. And it quickly became clear that the Lewiston Blue Devils were on a mission. In their first contest, opponent Brewer High School played the Devils physically, hoping to take them off their game. Lewiston won, 4-2. The Devils then won four in a row via shutout, and the average margin of victory was nearly 10. Through nine games, Lewiston went 9-0 with six shutouts.

The team’s toughest test of the regular season, against Camden Hills, was a physical war. It included allegations by the visiting coach of a Lewiston player playing without a mouthguard and biting a Camden player’s head, and also of severe goalie interference by a Lewiston player as the Windjammers’ goalie tried to corral the ball. A review of the video by officials after the game vindicated Lewiston on both counts. The Blue Devils won the game, 2-0.

No other team came close in the regular season. The Devils finished 14-0 and held home-field advantage through the playoffs. Shariff-Hassan led the team in total points, but it didn’t matter. It was on to the playoffs.

Lewiston overcame cross-river rival Edward Little in a regional quarterfinal, 5-0. The Devils vanquished perennial power Bangor 4-0 in the semifinal and, playing without star defender Abdulkarim Abdulle after a tough red card against Bangor, ousted Hampden Academy 4-0.

This all set up a rematch with Scarborough, the southern Maine power that toppled Lewiston in a preseason game and was also ranked among the top teams in New England.

There, again, although far fewer in number this time, the racial epithets stung Lewiston players’ ears as they dribbled near the stands. This time, though, Shariff-Hassan and his teammates remained focused.

A late goal after a long flip-throw from Maulid Abdow that glanced off a Scarborough defender — an own-goal — gave Lewiston the lead. It was the game’s only goal.

One year after McGraw’s busride prophecy, the team was state champion. For one day, all of Shariff-Hassan’s worries and troubles, all of his and his teammates’ struggles to survive, were forgotten.

They were stars. The season was chronicled in a documentary, “One Team: The Story of the Lewiston High School Blue Devils.” The story was retold and lives on in a book: “One Goal” by Massachusetts native Amy Bass dropped in February and weaves a tale that transcends sport and involves many of the players’ and coaches’ personal stories of struggle and overcoming adversity.

MOVING FORWARD

Shariff-Hassan’s next step wasn’t a fairytale, a movie or a book. Yes, he was named Maine’s Player of the Year by every local and regional outlet and publication. But he still had school to finish.

And he had more soccer to play.

He spent a year at the Kent School in Connecticut, hoping to draw attention from some Division I colleges while getting his academics in line.

Ultimately, he chose a school that wears a familiar color — blue — and enrolled at UMass-Lowell. A new school and a new system presented even more challenges.

“It’s different, because there’s a lot of talent here,” Shariff-Hassan said. “There are a lot of good players.”

“It can be kind of a shock when you’re no longer the top scorer,” Figueroa added. “They get shifted and play a new position because it’s where they’re more effective at this level.”

As a freshman, Shariff-Hassan made just eight appearances for the River Hawks and registered only one shot on goal. But he persevered, and made an impression on his coach.

“Abdi has really bought into that and he’s comfortable wherever he can help the team the most, and he’s really embraced it, and that shows a lot of character,” Figueroa said.

Shariff-Hassan has already seen 120 minutes in three matches this season, which has him trending to more playing time in the coming weeks.

On Friday night, he entered in the 35th minute and looked to make some noise. He did in the 86th minute, with his team already leading 2-0, when he drove into the middle from the right side, across the top of the 18-yard box, and was tripped while attempting a shot, drawing a yellow card and a direct kick.

“He’s not a flashy player,” Figueroa said. “He’s a confident player, but he’s not one to put himself over the team, so that’s really helped him embrace what’s being asked of him. He’s a guy at this level, with our group and the way we play, really does fit in.”

“Fitting in” is nice, of course, but given his track record, it likely won’t be long before he’s the one frustrating opponents and leading the River Hawks on the pitch.

 

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