The World of Inquiry soccer team made headlines in late September because some of its players knelt during the national anthem, a protest born out of the same act done by 49ers quarterback Colin Kapernick.
Now the Griffins want to make headlines because of their ability to play soccer, individually and collectively, and they’ve put themselves in a great position. W.O.I. (19-1-1) is two wins away from becoming the first soccer state champion from the Rochester City School District. It plays Section IV’s Lansing (19-1-1) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in Middletown, Orange County in the Class C semifinals.
“The guys on the team are very athletic, very fast, very skilled, a combination of all that stuff. It really seems like they have a team chemistry too because they’ve played together for a while,” said McQuaid coach Nino Pilato, who teaches in the RCSD. “Getting through some of the tough games they have, especially in the postseason, they have a lot of confidence right now, too.”
Two years ago, the Griffins became the first RCSD soccer team since 1980 to win a Section V championship. That squad made it all the way to the state final, where it lost by a goal. Now W.O.I has won three straight Section V Class C1 crowns and established itself as a soccer power. Players might not even understand the impact they’re having on soccer in the city. Not only are participation numbers up at other schools in the city, said RCSD Director of Athletics Carlos Cotto, but so is the “level of competition and overall talent,” of players.
Here’s proof: The Griffins beat Pilato’s McQuaid team, a Class A school, 2-1, on Sept. 21. The Knights returned the favor, handing W.O.I. its only loss, 4-3, on Oct. 11. But being able to not just compete with a larger school but beat one was a confidence booster for W.O.I.
“It shows where our progress is, how much we’ve improved,” said James Weh, a senior who has been on the squad since W.O.I.’s first season as a varsity squad in 2013.
And it wasn’t just the Griffins who made progress. Wilson Magnet, another city school, reached the Section V finals for the first time in school history before losing 4-0 in the Class A2 title match to three-time defending champion Honeoye Falls-Lima. If more city teams improve, who knows, in a decade one might look back and see the shift started with World of Inquiry.
“I think some who have chosen World of Inquiry because of the excellence in academics and some for possibly to be a part of the soccer program,” second-year coach Rich Paufler said. “There’s a buzz now. Kids are hearing about the program and wanting to be a part of it.
“The talent is out there. The kids are there. It’s just a matter of getting them to the field and getting them involved.”
Earlier this season, that involvement included kneeling in protest. Midfielders Jean Kennedy and Weh each politely declined to comment about the anthem protest, which put the team and school in the media spotlight and opened up players and the program to criticism. RCSD officials said then that it was a teachable moment about freedom, choices and individual rights. Paufler admitted the controversy — all 18 players knelt during the first protest prior to a match at Aquinas, fewer did thereafter — affected his squad.
“For a time maybe it divided us,” he said. “But it ultimately did bring us together, I feel like … if we can set an example for the rest of the country, then we’re all for it.”
That’s an important message considering the protests happening in America this week following Tuesday’s election.
An outside midfielder, Weh leads W.O.I. with 23 assists and also has nine goals but there are weapons all over the field. The player who stirs the attack quite often is Toyi Hakizimana, who is just a sophomore but is already a two-time All-Greater Rochester pick. He has a team-high 30 goals and is second with 14 assists. Junior midfielder Ayub Jeylani has 28 goals and five assists. Senior midfielder Miguel Lopez has two goals and 11 assists, junior forward Frankie Santiago has four goals and eight assists and senior defender Jaivaughn Killings has four goals and five assists.
The Griffins, the No. 1 team all fall in the Democrat and Chronicle’s small-school coaches poll, have outscored opponents 87-19 but it hasn’t been completely smooth sailing in the postseason. Indeed, W.O.I. walloped Allegany-Limestone and Marion by the same 5-0 score in its last two matches, but it needed some greatness from Hakizimana to escape Byron-Bergen/Elba in a very windy sectional final.
The native of Tanzania scored all four goals, two off passes from Weh. The Griffins went against the wind in the first half, then were with it in the second. Paufler said he never felt too worried that night despite the score because “I always felt like we had a little something extra … (Hakizimana) put us on his shoulders and willed us to that victory.”
Before that were a pair of 1-0 wins in sectionals over Holley and North Rose-Wolcott, which employed the only strategy it could to have a chance to win. NR-W sat back in a defensive shell, hoping a 0-0 draw might get it a shot to knock off W.O.I. in penalty kicks.
But sophomore Emmanuel Nsengiyumva scored the winning goal in the final minute.
“We’re fast attacking-wise, we’re fast defensively,” Weh said. “There’s not really much people can do if you throw so many different types of speed at them from so many angles.”
He was born in Liberia and came to America 11 years ago with his aunt and grandmother. W.O.I.’s melting-pot roster also includes players from Tanzania, Thailand, Malaysia and other African nations. That presented some communication challenges early in the season, but Paufler and his players figured it out.
Simple words, simple gestures and simple play bridged the gap. Good chemistry on the field is a result of the same off it, Weh said, and the communication issue forced players to get to know each other.
“When you just sit down with somebody and you have a conversation with them and you learn something about them, they learn something about you (and) that improves the chemistry,” Weh said. “And that’s what this sport is really about, chemistry.”
Soccer is teaching something else, too. Weh now carries a grade-point average of above 3.0, W.O.I. athletic director Donna Enright said. He’s the same player who was benched for sectionals as a freshman because his grades weren’t up to par. Weh told her then he never wanted to sit out again due to academics, and he hasn’t. Hakizimana missed some matches early last season for the same reason. His GPA is about 2.5, Enright said.
“That’s what soccer is doing for these kids,” she said.
“You play even harder now,” said Kennedy, a sophomore, “because you don’t want to go home.”
Five Things To Watch
1. Spencerport girls solid on ‘D:’ In 21 matches, the Rangers (19-0-2/Class A) have allowed six goals. That’s not a typo — six. They can score (55 goals), but “D” has been key for coach Jamie Schneider’s team. A group that has shut out 15 opponents is anchored by sophomore goalie Lauren Opladen, sophomore stopper Olivia Wall and junior sweeper Nicole Pecora. They haven’t allowed a goal since Oct. 7, a span of seven matches.
2. Livonia boys just keep winning: Fresh off their fifth straight Section V title, the Bulldogs (Class B) took down the state’s No. 1 team, Buffalo’s International Prep, on penalty kicks last weekend. Up next: Syracuse Westhill, which ended Livonia’s reign as state champion in the 2013 state semifinals, 2-1. The Bulldogs have won 454 matches, 10 sectional crowns and that one state title in 2012 under 31st-year coach Ray Maxwell. Those are all impressive numbers.
3. Fairport tries again: The Red Raiders are making their third Class AA state final four trip and made it to the title match both times previously, losing 1-0 to Massapequa in 2013 and 2-0 to Commack in 2014. But there’s something about this group veteran coach Gianni Bussani really likes even if it might not have as much firepower as past squads. “They just never stop believing,” no matter the circumstance, Bussani said after the sectional final.
4. Geneseo girls new to the dance: Senior forward Vicki Finn (22 goals/15 assists) and junior Kaity Keihl (14/2) are top threats for the Blue Devils (17-3-2), who’ve never made it to states. Finn was a key reason they won the school’s first sectional title since 1994. “She knows how to make her body big, almost like a box-out in basketball, to make herself pretty dangerous inside of 20 yards. She’s a special player,” coach Nick Drolettte said.
5. Wheatland-Chili tries again: Go to www.DemocratandChronicle.com to watch a Varsity Voices video with D&C sports reporter Jeff DiVeronica interviewing Wildcats coach Gary Ward and twins Abbey and Hannah Callaghan. Class D state runner-up last fall after losing 2-0 to Copenhagen, W-C is trying to win its first state crown since 1991.