“How are we feeling?” he asks.
It is a Tuesday in early November, and in three days International High School at Langley Park will play in the Maryland state semifinals.
This is the third consecutive year the Phoenix has reached this stage. But the small Prince George’s County school, just five years old, is unlike any other soccer powerhouse in the D.C. area. It was created to serve students who are designated as English language learners, most of them immigrants. There are about 340 students total, representing 30 countries and speaking 16 languages.
For many of them, soccer is one of the few passions that has followed them on this journey, binding their old home to this new one. It is by far the most popular sport at International, and as the boys’ varsity team has established itself as an area contender in recent years, it has become a source of pride for the fledgling school.
Sass is the assistant principal and founding varsity soccer coach. Between those roles, he sees this group for about 10 hours a day, five days a week.
“Not only do I know what makes them tick or what they’re going home to, but so do the majority of their teammates,” Sass said. “They look out for one another. They’ve all had similar experiences. They might not all be from the same country, but they all share the common bond of being in a strange place.”
The team’s after-practice discussions tend to be long and passionate, delivered in English and Spanish and often diverting to topics other than soccer.
But on this chilly afternoon, they have to make things quick. Despite the success in their four years as a varsity program, the Phoenix does not have a soccer field of its own. During the regular season, the team practices and plays behind a shuttered building that used to be Fairmont Heights High, less than a mile from the D.C. border. But at this point in the fall, that field is battered and unusable, so the players have been given half of the football field at C.H. Flowers High to prepare for their state semifinal. With the sun sinking below the tree line, it’s time for the football team to take over.
“If you play perfect soccer, I promise you you’ll be holding a championship trophy in a week and a half,” Sass tells his players. He knows they desperately want to win this game, to reach the championship match, to make their season last a little longer.
“It’s never been easier than this,” he adds. “It’s right in front of you.”
A school to call your own
Before a single student began attending International High School at Langley Park, there was a public discussion about whether it should exist. The school, along with its sister location in Largo, represents a bold experiment built around a competency-based model for English language learners.
But the idea has had its detractors. Before they opened, the schools were described as a modern form of segregation by the local president of the NAACP and criticized by those who don’t believe in public education for any undocumented immigrants that the school might serve.
To attend one of the schools, applicants need only be 16 or younger and designated as an English language learner by the county. The Langley Park location — which is in Bladensburg — mostly pulls students from four middle schools in and around its namesake, a small community about six miles away from the school that is dense with immigrants and often is labeled a breeding ground for gang activity and one of the region’s most dangerous suburbs.
“For some of our kids, soccer has been the thing that has kept them away from trouble,” said Carlos Beato, the school’s principal. “Or it’s the thing that has kept them from thinking about their trauma.”
It’s a school where education often intersects with life. Students come with different levels of instruction and from varying living situations. Some have grown up in the United States; others arrived just weeks ago.
There are days when focusing on academics can feel impossible. In early 2017, during an increase of raids in the area by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the school saw its attendance plunge any time a threat was reported nearby. There is also the daily challenge of reckoning with the intense national dialogue that surrounds immigrants and immigration.
“Our kids take all that in, and they think that they’re not worth anything,” Beato said. “And sometimes that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to tell them that they are worth something.”
For Sass, maintaining effort level or attendance during the season can be a challenge. In addition to any emotional issues that might arise, almost every player has a job during the season, and many have family responsibilities. More than once, Sass has lost a player mid-match because he got a call from a sibling, parent or boss and had no choice but to leave.
“Soccer, while it’s a priority, it’s not life to them,” Sass said. “My boys hate losing just like everybody else. But there are more important things.”
Many of them pull double shifts on the weekends so they can play soccer during the week. They work at trendy downtown restaurants, in construction, at a hair salon, at Silver Diner, at Nationals Park. Their time is always precious, their plates always full.
“Soccer is my break,” senior defender Jose Henry Lopez Ramirez said. “I come here, and I’m with my friends.”
Sass prides himself on sustaining a pressure-free culture. Before every game, he tells his players that he loves them and he hopes they have fun.
“I want them to be able to celebrate success,” he said. “In life, on the soccer field. Even minor successes — you’re allowed to get happy after a goal. It’s important for us that they take the time to enjoy any moment they can.”
The next level
The worst part about attending a high school that makes you feel at home is one day you must leave. For the students at International, the transition to college or the workforce can be especially daunting.
On the soccer team, there is always the dream of playing in college. Of this group, Jonathan Alvarado and Javan Aching have the best shot. But without a club team or active sports parents, they must navigate recruiters, visits and scholarship offers with only the help of Sass and their teammates.
For Alvarado, a junior, the process is just beginning. With his agility and speed, he would be an ideal forward for a lower-level college program. He always wanted to be a striker because that’s what his dad played in rec leagues in Guatemala. He was born in the United States but spent most of his life in Central America, learning the game on the beach near his home. He now lives with his father here, while his mother and siblings remain in Guatemala. But his dad works too much to come watch him play.
“I tell him that if he could come to see my games that I would be happy,” Alvarado said. “I could play with more love in the field and do my best to impress him.”
Aching is in a similar situation. He has attracted interest from a few colleges as a stout defender, but his parents, who are from Cameroon, have never seen him play. Getting them on board with his college plan will require persuasion.
“They don’t know that I’m good enough for a college to want me to play,” he said. “They reached out to me first. I don’t think they can really put that in their head.”
It frustrates him, but lately he has been trying to see things from their perspective. That’s one of the effects of going to a school such as International, he said. It makes you think about where people are coming from.
“I understand it,” Aching said of his parents’ view. “This is their child that they’ve been taking care of. They just brought them to a new country, to this new environment that has so many opportunities but is also so dangerous. They’ve been taking care of you for the past 18 years, and now they have to just flat-out let you go.”
‘They get to write the rest of their life’
The Phoenix entered the Maryland 1A state semifinal with just two losses — both against much stronger teams from the state’s 4A classification — after upsetting defending state champion Patterson Mill in the quarterfinals, and the team arrived at Northeast High hopeful this would be the year it advanced to the championship game. The Phoenix controlled the match early, nicking the post with one near-goal and hitting the crossbar a few minutes later on another failed attempt.
It was scoreless at halftime, but in the second half, things slipped away. The opponent, Francis Scott Key, scored one goal and then another, and the Phoenix pushed ahead desperately, looking for a breakthrough that would never come. Its season ended one game short of the state title match again, in a 2-0 loss.
“What usually worked was not working,” Sass said later.
On a dark and cold bus ride home, Sass made sure to speak with each player. He had seen what the end of soccer season did to his players in years past, especially the seniors. They would sleepwalk through school for about a week, if they came at all. Overcoming that hopelessness was the coach’s final challenge in a season full of them.
“I try to tell them that this was the beginning,” Sass said. “They get to write the rest of their life. They don’t see it like that because they’re 17-year-old kids, but it will dawn on them.”
He walked up and down the aisle of the bus, grabbing the backs of seats for stability as the team rumbled toward Bladensburg. He talked with his players about soccer, school and the future. But mostly he told them he still loves them and he hopes they had fun.