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Garinger High having magical soccer season

By Langston Wertz Jr.
lwertz@charlotteobserver.com

This is the best high school soccer season Garinger High School has ever had.

The Wildcats have made five straight playoff appearances, but the team – and the school – has rarely seen anything like this.

Garinger is unbeaten in 13 games, has shut out eight teams and outscored its opponents 78 to 5. At 6 p.m. Wednesday, the Wildcats, ranked third in the state, host traditional power Myers Park, which is ranked ninth.

“It’s taken a moment, but everyone is starting to realize what’s happening over here,” Garinger athletics director Tony Huggins said.

It’s a story that centers around three people who have poured their hearts and souls into helping a group of young men become engaged in playing a sport they love for their school. They’ve inspired the players in the classroom, helping some become academically eligible to compete.

Garinger has players from seven countries: the U.S., Togo, El Salvador, Mexico, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Honduras. Together, they’re providing the school with a team to rally around.

Since the Wildcats won the N.C. 4A boys state basketball championship in 1989, the school has had four losing streaks in football of at least 18 games plus a revolving door of coaches. All-American Tiffani Johnson led some very good girls basketball teams in the early ’90s. The boys basketball team, led by 7-foot freshman Raekwon Long, had a nice run last season making the second round of the playoffs, but Long has transferred out of state.

Overall, however, few Garinger teams have posted winning records in the past 25 years. But now, Garinger has something to cheer for.

“It’s an amazing story,” Huggins said.

Convergence of coaches

Two years ago, Alexandra Iorio began teaching English As a Second Language at Garinger. At the same time, David Garrett and Kyle Hunt – who work for a local urban ministry project called One7 – also became interested in coaching at the school.

Hunt met Garrett when he was 15 and playing soccer for Charlotte’s Grace Academy, a private school. Garrett, now 42, was working for the Charlotte Eagles soccer club and invited Hunt to join him and some other high school players for a tour of Brazil. Hunt, now 23, went on to play for Milligan College in Tennessee. When he finished he came home and joined Garrett working for the ministry. They were doing a lot of work on the east side of Charlotte and were aiding some of the Garinger students, one of whom recommended them for a vacant soccer opening at the school.

The coaches knew that Garinger was full of students who had immigrated to the U.S. who could play the game. They just needed to help get them on the field.

“We knew there was talent at Garinger,” Hunt said. “And we saw a lot of the best players there weren’t eligible to play. We encouraged them. We said, ‘Listen, we can do great things if you guys get to work in the classroom and take it seriously.’ A lot of them were ESL students, and they would get discouraged coming into a school trying to learn a second language. You give up. We encouraged them not to give up.”

Getting students engaged

Iorio had the same goals.

When she got to Garinger two years ago, she wanted to find something to get her ESL students engaged. She knew most of them loved soccer. She quickly formed a bond with the new coaches, becoming the team coordinator.

“We noticed there wasn’t a very large engagement in the immigrant population,” Iorio said. “Every one of the kids played recreationally but not for the school. We got together, the coaches and me, and we decided we wanted to make sure the kids would be eligible and bring them to the school team.”

Iorio said many of the players at the time couldn’t speak English, and school was a battle. Several were homeless.

“We have kids who escaped some crazy situations in their homelands just to get to the U.S.,” she said. “Being a part of this team is the only family they have.”

Iorio and the Wildcats coaches have helped arrange housing for those who needed it. A few of the players live at the One7 Ministry, sharing rooms and doing chores. At school, Iorio has become like a counselor to the team, making sure they are taking the proper classes, meeting with teachers, helping every Wildcats player stay on track to graduate.

The plan unfolds

Last year, the plan began to work. Players who had never played before became eligible. Garrett and Hunt’s first team finished 9-4 and made the N.C. 4A playoffs, losing 2-0 to eventual state quarterfinalist North Meck in the first round.

The star of the 2012 team, Pablo Orozco, made the N.C. coaches all-state team, a rarity for a Garinger player. He came to the U.S. with his parents from Argentina on visas when he was 5. Evicted from a Charlotte apartment, they moved into One7. He ranked second in his senior class with a 4.4 GPA and was one of 13 members of the first Golden Door Scholars, a fund started by Charlotte businessman Ric Elias. Orozco is studying business at Queens University of Charlotte.

Orozco has become the model that Iorio and Hunt and Garrett are encouraging all of the current Garinger players to follow.

“Some of them realize that if they do well in school and work hard,” Iorio said, “this can happen to them. This team can be a vehicle to make college a reality. The whole point is for these kids to go to college. It’s why I’m involved.”

This season, more new players joined the team, like sophomore midfielder Ruben Patino, who has five goals. Patino didn’t have the grades to play before now, he said. He remembers how many of the players used to play what he calls “street soccer” – 3-on-3 and 5-on-5 on a small field near Cochrane Middle School. He dreamed of playing school ball.

“I never got to play, even in middle school,” he said, “but I always wanted to. Now I’m in high school playing, doing well in school. No one in my family had ever graduated from high school. I want to be the first. Playing on the soccer team had a lot to do with that. I’m so excited playing for Garinger now.”

An aggressive attack

Patino and his teammates play an attacking, aggressive style, and the Wildcats have a lot of fast players. The stats are piling up. Tresor Mbuyu has 21 goals and 13 assists. Hussein Arsene has 22 goals. Jose Vanegas has 17 goals and six assists. Goalie Francisco Gonzalez has allowed only three goals all season.

No one knows how far this team can go, but no one there wants this dream season to end.

“Garinger has this bad rap as a bunch of kids who maybe don’t care,” Iorio said. “We want to bring knowledge to the community that Garinger is full of hard-working amazing kids that are going to do amazing things with their lives. Every win for us is not only a win, but it’s ‘Look how far we’ve come and who we are as a school.’

“We’ve got a long way to go, and we’re by no means invincible, but the bond these kids have is unbelievable. A lot of the teams we play may not have the same challenges our kids do. Their work ethic is unreal, and the focus that they have on the game and school is the dual partnership there. That’s why they are able to be so strong.”

Hunt said the future of the program, and the kids in it, is bright.

“We know the potential of these kids,” he said. “God has a plan for their lives. All they need is someone to take the time and to care, and they can be anything they set their minds to be. We train them to know their capabilities and to be leaders and that they can change Garinger. Through soccer, they can show other kids at Garinger that they can do the same thing. And hopefully through this, the whole school changes.”

Wertz: 704-612-9716; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr

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