Here comes “Baby.”
A loose rebound has summoned Columbia Heights forward Hussein Mohamed Arafa, lurking near the Fridley goal, to pounce.
Three scenarios flash in his brain as his legs churn: The goalkeeper would get the ball first. Arafa would get tripped. Or the senior would get the ball and score.
He made the last scenario happen, ripping the ball into the net in a 1-0 Hylanders victory last week.
Arafa ranked among the state’s most prolific scorers with 34 goals as a junior. This season he’s pumped seven goals and four assists into the offense as Columbia Heights started with 20 goals in two games.
But having Baby for a nickname? Surely such scoring exploits warrant a more fearsome moniker. Like his relentless style, Baby works for the diminutive Arafa. It started before a game four years ago against Spring Lake Park. Hearing Panthers players affectionately call 5-2 standout Mario Aleman the baby of their team, Hylanders coach Juan Carlos Cervantes announced, ‘That’s OK, we have our own Baby.’ ”
“I was only an eighth-grader, so I had no say,” Arafa said. “Now I’m used to it. Even the freshman and sophomores on the team now call me Baby.”
Arafa, still compact at 5-5, 135 pounds, plays much bigger. A two-year captain who excels in the classroom, Arafa fuels a program that values more than wins and losses.
Cervantes said Arafa “exemplifies the immigrant virtues that continually improve life in America: hard work, integrity and a will to succeed. His modest attitude and friendly spirit make him a joy to coach.”
Arafa, his parents and two siblings moved to the United States from Egypt when he was 8 years old.
“We were doing fine in Egypt but my dad just decided to come here and start a new life,” Arafa said.
The youngster, whose initial understanding of English consisted of “yes” and “no,” struggled with the transition.
“It was like being born all over again,” said Arafa, who went from a solid to slumping student until he learned English. He said he takes college-level courses at Columbia Heights and carries a 3.3 grade-point average.
His mother, Seham, helps ensure her children remain strong students by “always checking on grades for my brother and sister and me,” Arafa said. “If she sees me slipping in a class, she gets on me right away.”
The last such warning Arafa needed was as a freshman.
His father, Mahmoud, instilled a similar persistence on the soccer field from a young age. Ignoring his son’s considerable talents, Mahmoud’s father forbade him from playing the sport. The anti-soccer stance was not heredity. Mahmoud ranks as his son’s most vocal supporter from the seats.
Arafa stirs additional fan interest with his passionate style. Early in the second half against Fridley, Arafa hustled toward midfield to steal a ball from an opponent and convert the turnover into a scoring chance as the small home crowd cheered the effort.
“Pressure is the ultimate thing,” Arafa said of his style of play. “If you don’t stop, they mess up.”
Such plays receive mixed reviews, however, from Cervantes. An ongoing battle for Cervantes is how to keep Arafa playing within the desired system and saving his energy for scoring chances. In addition, Arafa draws his coach’s ire for trying to get the ball through double- and triple-teams of defenders.
“It’s a great that he has an edge but we’re working on discipline,” Cervantes said. “A stallion is great but it’s no good to me if I can’t ride it or get it to plow my field. But Baby is a good kid. He is eager to do well.”