In the aftermath of defeat, it can be difficult to comprehend the significance of an entire season. Although the East High School boys soccer players felt their season was cut short last Saturday, the 2-1 state quarterfinal loss to Grain Valley capped off a historic year for KCPS athletics.
For the first time in over two decades, the Bears boys soccer team led East to a district championship and state competition.
“Our boys proved in this game, and throughout the season, that they are capable of competing and performing the highest level,” said Bears Assistant Soccer Coach Ben Richardson.
The road to this year’s district title began on Aug. 20 at a Class 4 tournament in Liberty. The Bears, who moved up to Class 3 just this year, began their season against some of the best competition in Missouri.
After dropping two of three games in the tournament, the team quickly realized their style of play would not hold up against fierce competition, according to Bears Head Coach Narwarrior Mackey.
“We had a good long talk afterward,” Mackey said.
It was shortly after the Liberty tournament that the Bears began to play like a winning team.
“We’ve always had highly talented players,” Richardson said. “But this year, we have a group of players with a focus on team attacking that we’ve never had in the past.
There is no doubt that this year’s team had its fair share of individual athleticism. However, it is the team oriented attack that allowed the team to rattle off 12 straight victories and capture a District Title.
This team centered attack was fostered by the leadership of three Bear captains: senior Phillip Kisner, senior Abdiqaila Weli and junior Justin Bilombeie.
“It’s the captains that have done a fantastic job of getting the team to gel and being responsible for their brothers.” Mackey said.
“Captain Justin Bilombeie really embodies our team attitude because he’s the type of kid who could score multiple times a game, but coming together as a team and winning is more important to him.” Richardson added.
The Bears represent a high school with a 50 percent English Language Learner population, and over half of the students that attend East High School are immigrants or refugees from other countries. The soccer team includes players from countries in Africa, Asia, South American and the Middle East. Both coaches agree that this diversity plays an important role in the team’s overall success.
Coach Mackey and Richardson believe the soccer team is a second home for many of the players, and that this season’s success has made the kids feel part of something special.
“They get along so well. The team really makes them feel at home and part of a program. We have one common goal: to win soccer games.” Mackey said.
“The team gives students from other countries a microcosm of what life is like back home. soccer is a language and a culture. Even a student who just arrived in this country and doesn’t speak any English, they relate to soccer. It’s the international language.” Richardson added.
The Bears are set to prove 2016 was not a fluke. Although the team will lose some irreplaceable seniors, the Bears will return several key players in 2017, including forwards Valentin Mpanga, Hser Chri Htoo, Captain Justin Bilombeie and freshman goalie Yamungu Mapenzi.
Coach Mackey said Saturday’s quarterfinal game was “absolutely” the most important game he has coached in his 33-year career. It was heartbreaking to see his team fall just short, but there is no doubt Mackey is incredibly proud of the team’s success.
After the Quarterfinal game, both coaches took a brief moment to reflect on the historic season. However, coach Mackey and Richardson didn’t waste any time looking ahead to next year.
“We are excited to pick up where we left off on Saturday and bring a state title to East High School. Richardson said.
For more photos from the Quarterfinal game.
For more information about East Bears soccer team.