BMCC’s soccer team was edged out by Nassau Community College in the NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association) regional semifinals on October 27 at the Panthers’ Pier 40 home field. But the loss—by a score of 1-0—was hardly a blip on the players’ screen. This was the most extraordinary season in the team’s history.
The Panthers went into the semifinals—their first in five years—with a near-perfect 11-1 record on the season. BMCC was ranked ninth in community colleges nationwide and fielded two NJCAA All-American candidates: Co-captain Mubarak Sani and Albanian-born teammate Klaudio Shala. As team captain Manuel Paulino notes, making All-American is an honor conferred on the nation’s best community-college players.
“What’s remarkable is that we had only seven returning sophomores and a bunch of freshman players,” says Paulino. “It was a privilege to play with them.”
The best of the best
No less remarkable than the players’ performance on the field was their academic discipline and achievement, notwithstanding the long hours and effort they invested each week in soccer practice and drills. Paulino, who is majoring in Liberal Arts, has maintained a 3.14 GPA and plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree and a career in physical education. Co-captain Sani dropped out of high school in his native Ghana, but completed a GED after emigrating to New York and then enrolled in BMCC, “partly because I knew the school had a great soccer program, but also because the coach at the time, Kenichi Yatsuhashi, was well known for helping his players go on to a four-year college.”
Sani, a science major, likewise hopes to continue his education after graduating from BMCC. “Balancing athletics and academics is key,” he says.
Coach Afrim Lajqi—a former BMCC soccer star who also played professionally in the Albanian Premier League—couldn’t be more pleased with how his players performed, both throughout the season and in the semi-final nailbiter against Nassau.
Keeping their priorities straight
“There is something wonderful about such talented student players who also aspire to academic excellence,” he says. “These are guys who come from places where soccer is everything, but their philosophy is school first, soccer second.” Being in a position to help his players both on and off the field “and then seeing them go off to senior college, whatever their major is, to further their education is an incredible source of satisfaction,” he says.
But the satisfaction also comes from watching his players gel as a team. “Underneath everything, this is about guys from diverse backgrounds getting to know each other, building character, building relationships and learning about the meaning and importance of respect,” Lajqi says. “They bring tremendous skill and discipline to everything they do. As a coach, the best thing I can do is provide them with the guidance they need to get to the next level.”