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International students boost Lee Academy’s run to a boys soccer state final

Randy Harris expected to field a solid boys soccer team at Lee Academy this fall, but perhaps not a team capable of capturing the school’s first regional championship in the sport. But the Pandas’ veteran coach also didn’t anticipate having the same lineup he’s been able to use during the team’s undefeated run to the Class D North title and a berth in Saturday’s 5:30 p.m. state final against North Yarmouth Academy at the Gehrig T. Johnson Athletic Complex at Presque Isle Middle School.

Lee’s roster includes seven players from a group of 30 international students attending the school this year after originally planning to study abroad in other countries only to be left seeking new destinations due to border closings and other COVID-19 concerns. A longstanding relationship between the northern Penobscot County school and the Educatius Group — an organization with recruitment offices in nine countries that works with approximately 200 public, private and boarding schools in the United States — led to the students attending Lee Academy.

“Collaborating with Lee Academy during these disruptive times has allowed us to provide a great solution for our students who were unable to go to their original destination, introduce students from more nationalities to Lee Academy’s student body and help balance out the students they would typically welcome from Asia,” said Carla Kearns, vice president of marketing and communications for the Educatius Group.

Harris first learned of the pending influx of new boarding students at Lee in late June but had no idea that it might affect the school’s soccer team. “I didn’t know if it would be 30 girls or 30 boys or what the makeup of the group would be,” he said. “It wasn’t like they sought out Lee Academy because it was a soccer power. They were just trying to get to a school.”

Harris — also Lee’s athletic administrator — started receiving inquiries from some of the international students upon their arrival in Maine about whether the school had a soccer program, and while preseason practices had already started he invited them to join the team.“They didn’t even know we had a soccer team until they got here, but soon after that a few more trickled in and before it was done we had a good bunch that wanted to play,” he said.

For many of the international students that have joined the Lee boys soccer roster, interscholastic play represents a different type of competition than they experience in their home countries. “Joining the soccer [and other sports] teams is such an important experience for exchange students,” Kearns said. “In most countries, high schools do not have the same sports teams [or clubs, pep rallies and arts programs] outside of class that American schools do. Students can only play sports at an external club. To play with their classmates and experience the school spirit of games is truly unique and something that also helps international students integrate with new American friends easily.”

The additions to Lee’s original 13-player roster have added a quality of depth that Harris said has been one of the keys to his team’s success this fall. “I’d never seen a team that in such a short time molded together like this team,” he said. “They’re so unselfish with the ball. They’re always trying to get someone else a better shot.” The Pandas have outscored their opposition 123-18 while compiling their 18-0 record so far this season with Ethen Allard, Pedro Anselmo and Luis Soto sharing the scoring lead with approximately 15 goals each.

Eli and Finn Knowles team with Cayo Navaes and Eray Bahcekapili in the midfield while junior Nick Allard — the team’s leading scorer each of the last two years — has played a starring role this fall on the defensive end where he is joined by Vince Barrades and Niccollo Balletto in front of goalie Andrew Scott. “We’re really strong defensively and that’s allowed our middle third to be attacking offensively all the time. Our forward third is really good, too,” Harris said. “I just think the fact that we’re so balanced and have so many good players on the field means we can take some chances offensively, especially up front, and know that if something happens because we turn it over and don’t have quite enough numbers behind the ball that we’ll be OK.”

The Pandas also boast two super subs in Kutay Erturk and Joel Gerlach, who scored the winning goal with 31.4 seconds left in the second overtime of their 1-0 victory over Wisdom of Saint Agatha in the Class D North final. “The kids know they had to battle to beat Wisdom so they should know that the same attitude and the same effort will have to go into Saturday to give us a chance to win our first state championship,” Harris said.

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