It was an unusual sight Monday at Orono High School — a top-tier soccer team from the western suburbs playing a St. Paul charter school comprised largely of Somali students.
Before the game — a 3-1 victory by Orono over Higher Ground Academy — Orono’s captains presented Higher Ground’s with a $1,000 check to use on transportation, equipment, field rental, staff and other program needs.
“This is a complete surprise,” High Ground coach Buzz Lagos said before the game. “We were happy they were going to play us. … To have a donation on top of that is incredible.”
It was also years in the making.
Lagos started the Higher Ground soccer program in 2005, after 16 years coaching the Minnesota Thunder and an earlier stint at St. Paul Academy. In the ’80s, Lagos had started the state soccer coaches clinic, where he met Brad Carlson, then the new Orono coach, who was part of his first class.
When Lagos transitioned to the school, “we just always made sure that we left a spot open on our schedule for Buzz and for Higher Ground,” Carlson said.
The relationship continued under Orono’s current coach, Derek Engler, with the teams playing an annual game under the lights at Pesonen Stadium.
“Every year when we play them, it’s more than just a soccer game,” Engler said. “It’s more about building soccer relationships … and supporting one another, regardless of whatever background you come from.”
Higher Ground, founded in 1999, serves about 740 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, about 90 percent of whom are Somali and Oromo, Lagos said. Nearly all students are English-language learners and receive free and reduced lunch.
It is a college-prepatory environment, with students needing to be admitted to college to graduate. Soccer, he said, is meant to supplement, not supplant, schoolwork. While soccer is a year-round activity, the team only meets about three times a week, giving the players opportunities to try college courses and other activities.
Getting kids to attend practice has been a challenge, Lagos said, as is transportation. It helps that some alumni with cars have been coming to games, but he still rents a van for games and drives kids home all over the Twin Cities.
Lagos said the program spent $50,000 on non-equipment needs last year, between transportation, field rental and staff. He raises money to offset the costs and has also received funds from two foundations.
Programs across the state, including Minnesota United, have provided in-kind donations, too.
In Monday’s game, Higher Ground held the Spartans (8-1) scoreless for the first 34 minutes, with junior goalie Yusuf Aburia making several well-timed diving saves.
Orono broke through with two goals in a minute-long span late in the first half. Higher Ground scored early in the second, but the Spartans added a late third goal.
Afterward, the Higher Ground players joined the Orono team for pizza.
Senior captain Abdirahman “Ifo” Abdikarin, who scored Higher Ground’s lone goal, called the Spartans “great players. I really enjoy playing with them.”
Jonny Schmid, a senior captain for Orono, said the team ‘‘feels awkward in a way,’’ acknowledging his teammates’ more privileged backgrounds. Higher Ground, he said, is “just excited to play the game with what they have. They play for the enjoyment of the game.”
Carlson said, “This is what high school sports is all about.”