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Tom Archdeacon: Belmont soccer team’s story inspires community

Thanks to Centerville High School, Julie Raiff cried … and then she danced.

On Thursday, before her soccer team was to play its tournament game against host Centerville on the turf field at Alumni Stadium, the Belmont coach was brought to tears when the rival Elks opened their hearts and their closets to her players.

The Belmont soccer team is like no other prep squad in the Miami Valley. It is made up of players from 18 nations and four continents. Some are Muslim, some are Christian, 21 are boys and two are girls.

Many of the players had been forced to flee their homelands because of war or persecution. Several bounced from country to country with parts of their families. Many lived years in crowded refugee camps and some endured deadly tragedies along the way.

Here in Dayton — thanks in part to the Catholic Social Services Resettlement Program — they ended up at Belmont, which has an extensive English as a Second Language program and a meagerly-supported soccer team that lacks funds, equipment, a decent field and, in many cases, even proper footwear.

Last Sunday, I told the story of the team and no one was more interested than the soccer folks at Centerville High, which — after the Elks dispatched Sidney in Monday night’s tournament game — was to face the 8-0-1 Belmont team on Thursday.

RELATED: Belmont soccer team boasts international flavor

In an example of the best side of our community, Centerville’s coaches, players and soccer parents launched a full embrace of their Belmont rivals.

The Elks began by donating shoes for the Bison.

“A lot of our boys are very fortunate and have several pairs of cleats,” said Genya Devoe, president of the Centerville Boys Soccer Board. “We asked if they could go through their cleats bins and rooms and would be willing to give some of their stuff so the Belmont players had adequate cleats for Thursday’s game.”

In just two days, 80 pairs of cleats — some brand new — were collected. The cache was given to the Belmont team just before the game and three players wore those offerings against the Elks.

“There will be more down the way,” said Centerville coach Jeff Monbeck. “I told their coach we want to do things going forward that will help them build and support their program, whether it’s through more shoes, more soccer balls and uniforms, working out with us, using our facility when they need it or helping them find future games.

“I told her, ‘This isn’t about one night, this is a long-term project.’ And that’s when she got really teary-eyed.”

The game followed and Belmont — playing for the first time on turf, in front of a big crowd on a cold and rainy night against what Raiff admitted was “truly the better team” – was beaten, 4-1.

Afterward, Centerville invited the Belmont players, many of whom were initially down-hearted by the season-ending loss, to some postgame fellowship over pizza, chips and soft drinks.

“I wasn’t sure what would happen when you get two teams of teenagers together,” said Devoe. “I hoped they wouldn’t end up segregated — our kids sitting together and their players sitting by themselves.

“And that’s what was so cool about it. They just naturally sat with each other.”

Raiff, who has taught in affluent schools, inner-city schools and rural schools, said she has learned one thing: “Kids are kids.

“And at the start maybe the Centerville kids simply wanted to give our kids shoes and some food, but then it became more than that. It was like it hit them: ‘This is crazy. They’re just like us and we want in.’ ”

That was never more evident than when the Elks invited the Bison to their dressing room after the meal.

“They turned their obnoxious music up real loud and did teenage boy stuff,” laughed Devoe, whose 16-year-old son Keagan is a junior defender.

“It turned into a big dance party,” said Monbeck. “And the next thing you know their coach is right in the middle of it.”

Raiff chuckled about that: “Our boys and girls were in the room with their players and it turned into a mosh pit and everyone was dancing and carrying on. They even drug me out there and I was dancing like an idiot in the middle of the bunch. It truly was a joyful experience.”

Monbeck was especially moved by the sight: “You could see how much her players love her and how much she loves them.”

Outside the bubble

“My whole coaching motto I learned from my dad,” Raiff said in reference to her father, Jerry Raiff, a University of Dayton football player in the 1950s. “He told me, ‘You gotta be part of something bigger than yourself.’ ”

That’s the way she relates to her Belmont players and, in so doing, she has attracted other people who think that way, too.

She told how one retiree in the area showed up at the Belmont practice field the other day, affixed a new net to a goal where the previous one had been stolen and then, on his way out, pressed some money into her hand.

Another man, a Patterson Co-op grad who understands the challenges facing many Dayton Public Schools program, showed up at the Centerville game with brand new shoes for two players who needed them most.

A pair of area soccer clubs — where prep players develop their skills in the summer and get exposure for college — contacted Raiff and offered to help with the costs and take on her players in the offseason.

A few other people have sent Raiff or the school money and she’s hoping DPS will put it toward redoing Belmont’s rock-filled soccer field.

“Maybe they can turn it into Freedom Field,” she said.

Meanwhile, out at Centerville, Monbeck was thinking about what his team could do. After reading last Sunday’s story, he said he contacted the school’s athletics director, Rob Dement, and said — after Monday’s game — he wanted to put some of his focus on doing whatever he could for Belmont.

The idea took root even more when Raiff brought her Bison team to Alumni Stadium to watch the Elks topple Sidney, 5-1.

The players were enchanted by the stadium and the crowd and even cheered the Elks.

“I think they really wanted to play us,” Dement said. “They wanted a chance to knock us off — which is great.”

Afterward, the Belmont players were invited out onto the field.

“They were excited to be out there and they asked, ‘Can we kick a ball around out here a little bit?’ ” Devoe said. “Knowing some of the things they have had to endure along the way and the struggles they have, it made you appreciate them all the more.”

And it was good for the Elks to see all that, Monbeck said:

“I don’t want this to come off wrong, but our kids live in a bubble. They don’t know about refugees and coming from Iraq and the other countries. Our kids read the story and how their players still loved soccer and thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ Then they met them and saw they were just like them.

“That was a special moment.”

‘A beautiful story’

Raiff believes people are drawn to her players because “they see that they are just kids and all they want is an opportunity to play in a safe place and get educated and have dreams.

“From working with them, I’ve gotten so much more than I’ve given to them. They’ve taught me humanity.”

While she said her players are overwhelmed by the attention and the sudden embrace they are getting, they also are beginning to realize they, too, are part of something bigger than themselves:

“They do feel like ambassadors and realize they’re not just representing their team or their school, but Mozambique or Iraq or wherever they’re from.

“And that’s really important now, especially in this climate of hate and fear that some people promote and try to make you believe that every Muslim person is going to blow you up.

“Thanks to these kids, people know differently. They can say, ‘No, Nyaz and Ameer and some of the others are Muslim and I feel safe with them and I feel happy with them and I’m a kid just like them.’ ”

She said that’s the best part of all this with Centerville and everybody else:

“The value exceeds the donations. Far more than the dollars, there are the good feelings and the new friendships and maybe now people will see someone different and say, ‘Hey, that’s like those Belmont kids. It just makes the world better when we can see each other as the same.

“It’s a beautiful story.”

That’s why Friday morning a 90-year-old woman from the Centerville community called the superintendent’s office at the school, said Dement:

“She said she was proud of our team and the parents and what they did Thursday night.”

And so was Dement:

“Look, we love to win and be successful, but that really wasn’t what Thursday night was about. It was about more than that.”

It was about tears.

And it was about dancing to loud “obnoxious” music in brand new shoes.

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