MASON – Lirim Shefkiu said he’s always somewhat been in the shadow of his older brother, Leutrim, on the pitch.
It was Leutrim, the 2015 State Journal boys soccer player of the year, who scored 27 goals and dished out 16 assists for the reigning Division 2 state champion Mason Bulldogs during his senior season a year ago. But Leutrim wouldn’t have been able end his career on the highest of notes if it weren’t for his little brother scoring the game-winning penalty kick in the title game.
Throughout the entire state-title run, Lirim said a cousin encouraged him to put it all on the line to help his brother leave high school a state champion. And now that Leurtrim has moved on to Saginaw Valley State University, Lirim returns to help navigate a squad that lost nine starters.
“Being one of ‘the ones’ is fun. I don’t think it’s a burden or anything. It’s a privilege,” Lirim said of becoming a team captain. “Every time I played I tried to be as good as (Leutrim), or better. I think it pushed me a little bit.
“This team has a lot of chemistry. We all like to joke around a lot, but when things get serious … I feel like, mentally and emotionally, I can (guide) them. They follow my lead.”
Lirim, a senior, has five goals and eight assists for the Division 2 15th-ranked Bulldogs (6-2-3) and has started in three different positions this year. Coach Nick Binder said he’s gotten experimental with the way he’s been using Lirim while his fresh-faced team finds its identity.
It’s that versatility that Binder feels makes Lirim one of the best players in the state.
“I’ve had opposing coaches jokingly tell me, ‘I don’t get a player like that,'” Binder said. “We knew the year was coming where we’d only have three seniors, and with him being one of the only ones with starting experience, we do have to rely on him.”
Binder said he and Lirim had several talks leading up to the season, most of which focused on handling how to become a team leader. Lirim, a four-year varsity player, expressed to Binder his full commitment before the season.
“Exaggerating, he came up to me and said, ‘I don’t have any friends left, so I’m ready to commit 100 percent to soccer,'” Binder said. “He always played up a year or two, with his brother. Most of his soccer friends he had over the past few years graduated.
“He’s not going to be a secret (anymore). He’s going to be No. 1 or 2 on each team’s scouting report.”
Despite the roster’s turnover, Lirim believes this year’s team can make another deep playoff push. The product on the field is still a work in progress, but he cites chemistry as the Bulldogs’ greatest strength.
Mason faced an early-season test when it took on No. 4-ranked East Lansing last week. The Bulldogs ended up getting shutout, 3-0, but Lirim said the team walked away believing the process was heading in the right direction.
“Every game, (coach) tells us that since we were state champs last year that people are always targeting us,” he said. “We’re just building to be as good as we can at the end of the year.”
Contact James L. Edwards III at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JLEdwardsIII.