It was the best -- and the worst -- six months of Stephen Basso's life, yet the Hammond senior hopes he'll get the chance to relive the experience.
"If that's what it takes to be the best soccer player I could be," he said. "I've already done it once."
Basso left his mother, two siblings and his friends -- as well as a blossoming high school soccer career -- to improve his skills in Germany when his father, a foreign service officer with the State Department, was assigned to Frankfurt.
Basso felt the chance to play soccer in Europe -- where it is played on a much higher level than in the United States -- was an offer he couldn't refuse. So in July 2003 he departed, leaving a high school team he had led to its first two state tournament appearances for H.H. Arnold High, the American Department of Defense's secondary school in Wiesbaden.
Basso earned a starting spot on the PSV Blau Geld, a club team in the junior Bundesliga, which serves as a feeder system into the Bundesliga, one of the top professional leagues in the world.
"The speed of play and how fast you have to make decisions out there on the field and just the overall level of soccer was the best I've ever seen," Basso said. "Playing there definitely made me a better player."
Though Basso was happy with the direction his soccer career was heading as he led the team to a second-place finish, he felt lost off the field.
He didn't speak German, had few friends and spent his free time watching television or on the Internet, communicating with friends back home.
"We had a satellite dish so I could watch the NFL, and I watched more movies than I have in the past three of four years," Basso said. "It wasn't like I could call up a bunch of my friends and go out because I didn't have any."
"From a soccer standpoint, it was great for him, but after the first couple of months he started getting really homesick," said his father, Alex Basso. "There was a big cultural difference, and the fact his mother and sister and brother were back home made it tough for him because he missed them so much."
Basso's teammates at Hammond missed him, too. Basso led the Golden Bears to region titles as a freshman and sophomore, playing alongside All-Met Kwaku Boateng, who scored 44 goals during the two-year run.
But last fall, without Basso, Hammond posted just two victories and was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the 2A South Region tournament.
"We fell apart last year without him because he would always give us the momentum, and he was a great leader," said junior midfielder Jose Maldonado. "He always came up with a big goal for us when we needed it, and last year we didn't have anyone who could score."
Basso returned to his Columbia home -- and to Hammond -- in January, but his presence has been felt the most this fall. He was team captain and saw time at forward, midfielder and sweeper as Hammond finished 8-5-1, the most regular-season victories in school history.
"Stephen means the world to Hammond," said River Hill Coach Bill Stara, whose team lost to Hammond, 2-0, last month. "He's their leader. Everything they do goes through him."
Basso capped the regular season with his eighth goal of the season in a 1-0 victory at Reservoir. He also had five assists.
Hammond was scheduled to play Atholton in Monday's quarterfinals; the game ended too late to be included in this edition.
"He's got the heart of a lion, the head of a computer because he's always calculating out there and has the guts of a true, all-American hero," Hammond Coach Rick Bantz said. "If you don't have that go-to guy like we have in Stephen, then you're in for a hard day at the rock pile."
Basso doesn't know what he'll do after he graduates in the spring. He is being recruited by several Division I schools, including Elon College, but he also said he's been asked by PSV Blau Geld team officials if he's interested in returning next season.
"It's all going to depend on what college scholarships I get, but I also need to hear from Blau Geld coaches to see where I fit in their future," Basso said. "If I can go to Germany and be a professional soccer player, I'd go because that's my dream."