Throughout the 2013 boys’ soccer season, various pieces of Montgomery Blair High School’s starting lineup have been missing for one reason or another.
Donald Benamna, a dangerous senior attacker who has started since being called up from junior varsity halfway through his freshman season, has been in and out of the lineup with nagging injuries.
Komlan Kouhiko, a tactically superior senior midfielder, recently went on a trip to Germany to try out with various youth teams and missed some time.
Alex Epstein, a rock-solid senior center back, has been sidelined the entire year with a hamstring ailment but is expected to return to form ahead of the playoffs.
Through all of that — in a testament to the club’s depth and to coach John Haigh’s ability to select a cohesive starting 11 — the Blazers have the best winning percentage in Montgomery County (8-1-0 as of Sunday night) and enter the regular season’s final week with lofty expectations.
“I think it feels a little different than last year,” Haigh said. “There’s certainly more of an excitement level. This year, we have a closer-knit group. This group of kids, they’re all friends outside of school.”
Last season, the Blazers lost to Walter Johnson in the second round of the Class 4A West Region tournament, but beat the Wildcats this September, 1-0. Seniors Ibrahima Kouyate and Keenthy Yeboah have both emerged as go-to players and overall Blair is two wins shy of turning in its fifth-consecutive 10-plus win season. The only thing that’s eluded them throughout this run of success is a trophy.
“We just want to bring a new trophy to the building,” said Benamna, who has four goals this season. “We decided this year we wanted to do big things. Everybody has the confidence. If we stay committed, there’s nothing that can break us apart.”
While Benamna has been a bit banged up, his value to his club is hard to ignore. After scoring five goals in the second half of his freshman season — just one year after moving to the United States from the Central African Republic — he has steadily proven himself as one of the county’s premiere attacking threats.
As a child in Africa, Benamna began playing soccer when he was 5. He learned the sport from his father, Mahamane, who also taught him how to play volleyball.
“I decided to stay with soccer because I liked it a lot better,” Benamna said with a laugh.
When he moved to the U.S. in 2009, Benamna didn’t speak English and didn’t know anyone. He stayed in his family’s house for two weeks as he tried to adjust to the culture.
In time, Benamna adjusted well to his surroundings, both academically and socially. And, of course, on the soccer field.
“Playing soccer in Africa, it’s a battle,” Benamna said. “I’m used to playing with the older people. I never played my own age in Africa because I wanted to get better. And that’s the only way you can get better is by taking on people bigger and more physical than you.”
While in Africa, Benamna and his friends played anywhere at any time. He said things are far more structured in the U.S. where ample playing fields are provided and matches are timed. In the process of adjusting to his new lifestyle, Benamna caught the eyes of multiple college coaches and last year accepted a full scholarship offer from San Diego State University to play soccer. He said he’s since received scholarship offers from other universities, but is set on attending SDSU. He hopes to study economics or business while keeping his mind focused on pursuing a career in professional soccer.
Before that, however, he and the Blazers have one primary goal in mind as October rolls into November.
“I love this team. We’re really strong this year,” Benamna said. “Since I started playing varsity freshman year, I feel like this is the strongest team I ever played with at Blair. I’m happy to be one of the captains and I know we’re going to do big things this year if we keep putting each other on one another’s back.”