HOLY FAMILY MEN'S SOCCER: CULTURAL KICKS
By Melissa Yerkov
Times Sports Editor
If everything happens for a reason, then maybe it is fate that Dodji Freitas and Seyou Ba are in Tiger uniforms these days.
Both are natives of West Africa and moved to America as teenagers, finding a second home in the City of Brotherly Love. Both were standout soccer players for their high schools. And now both have scored a spot on the Holy Family University men's soccer team.
"Both players had fit in perfectly with the other talented incoming players, as well as with the returning players," said coach Mike Bradby. "We as a staff and team have learned a lot of interesting things about the way of life in their country. They are two of the most dynamic, sincere and respectful individuals that I have had the pleasure to be around."
Freitas and Ba's journey to Northeast Philadelphia was certainly anything but routine. Most would say the same about their soccer skills.
"Their performance on the field is extraordinary. They both have taken this team up another notch," Bradby said. "They live and breathe the game of soccer and expect nothing but excellence when they are performing on the field."
Freitas, the younger of the dynamic duo, is a graduate of Samuel Fels High School who is entering his freshman year at Holy Family. Ba is a junior transfer student who recently completed a two-year program offered by Manor College.
Soccer has been a way of life for them.
"Where we are from, you play soccer all day, every day," explained Freitas, a native of Togo, a West African nation about the size of West Virginia. "You go to school and you play soccer. You live it."
"In Africa, soccer is all we do," added Ba, who was born in Mauritania, a country notable for its Arab and African populations. "That's what you do 24/7 basically."
With the Holy Family soccer season in full swing, the pair should feel right at home.
The Tigers kicked off their season on Aug. 28 with a 2-0 loss at home against Davis & Elkins College, a school in West Virginia. Holy Family rebounded in its next game by defeating Mercy College, 4-1. Over the holiday weekend, they claimed two more triumphs, beating University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, 2-0, on Sept. 6, followed by a 4-0 win over Alderson-Broaddus College the following day.
"The roster features a balance of talent that is prevalent at each position," said Bradby. "The squad had immediate team chemistry throughout training camp and the mental toughness to succeed on the pitch. This group just wants to win, and I look forward to seeing the results of their hard work this season."
The Holy Family soccer squad has established itself as a powerhouse in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference. The mighty Tigers have advanced to the CACC championship tournament during the past three seasons; the last two they played in the championship game but lost.
This time, they're ready to go all the way.
"I think the team is looking good," said Ba. "The best part about soccer is when you work hard and it pays off. That's what we want this year - a championship. We plan to be the last ones standing."
Ba knows all about winning championships. While attending John Bartram High School, he helped his soccer squad conquer the Public League in 2004 and '06, scoring 35 goals and registering 14 assists during those seasons. He also was a first-team All-State selection.
He went on to score 39 goals, with 12 assists, during his two seasons with Manor College. As team captain, he also led the Blue Jays to a state championship.
Freitas earned his own bragging rights while playing soccer for Samuel Fels. The four-year starter was a first-team All-Public selection three times during his tenure with the Panthers, as well as first-team All-State. A forward, he tallied 44 goals during that time.
"Both players were highly recruited by a lot of the bigger schools throughout the country," explained Bradby. "They both decided to stay close to home so their families could be a part of their college experience."
Freitas, who has been in America for five years, lives in the Northeast with his father, brother and sister. His cousins and other extended family also live in the area, bringing a bit of Togo to the region.
"I was living in France but my dad won a lottery to come here," he explained, referring to an immigration lottery. "Then about five years later, me and my brother and sister came here to go to school. They chose to come to Philadelphia because there are a lot of people from my country here.
"It was hard at first, when you speak another language and you have to learn English, but once you get used to it, it's not bad," he said. "There's more opportunity here. The schools here are really good and give you a lot of opportunities to succeed."
Both student athletes describe the language barrier as the most difficult hurdle in their transition from West Africa to the United States. For Ba, who speaks five other languages, learning English was the most challenging.
"It was hard at first, coming to a country where you're not adapted to the language and culture," said Ba, who also speaks his native language of Fula, as well as Arabic, French, Wolof and Sirinkoy. "Everything just seemed different. But after going to school for a while, and learning English, you blend in with the community."
Ba, who turns 21 later this month, has lived in Southwest Philly for six years with his father, six brothers and three sisters. He recently transferred to Holy Family's main campus in the Northeast.
"This is my first time living on a campus," he said. "I used to travel close to two hours to go to school every day at Manor (College). I was in Southwest Philly, so I would get on the bus, trolley, then a train. It was a headache getting up early to catch these buses and get to school. Now that I'm here, I have more time, so it's a lot easier."
Both soccer stars study just as hard in the classroom, working toward majors in accounting. After graduation next year, Ba wants to take a shot at the big time and become a professional athlete. In the meantime, he's working on a backup plan.
"Growing up, my goal was always to go pro, but now that I'm in school, I talked to coach Bradby about it and he advised that I graduate first," said Ba. "He told me that it's important to graduate first so you have something to fall back on in case something goes wrong - if I break a knee or something. If something happens and you can't play anymore, you're going to need that degree.
"So I took that advice and right now I'm concentrating on graduating," he added. "Then after that, I'll go ahead and try out for teams and see how it goes."
Freitas and Ba are soaking up all that Holy Family University has to offer - athletically and academically. And in the process, they're refining their skills on the pitch and expanding their knowledge off it.
"That is what soccer is about - meeting different people from different backgrounds and learning about them," said Ba. "You meet people from all over the world and learn about different cultures."