With six foreign-born players and families representing 14 nations, the Seahawks have reversed a losing tradition and are suddenly a state-title threat.
For years, the numbers were stacked against the Chief Sealth High School boys soccer team.
When coach Ron Johnson took over the team in 1997, the Seahawks could barely field a team. Then, when they finally had enough players, it was the goals allowed and the losses that piled up.
But last year, in Johnson’s 16th season, Chief Sealth broke through. The West Seattle school finally posted a winning record (14-3-1), won the Metro League Sound Division title and earned the school’s first playoff berth. The Seahawks lost to top-ranked Shorewood 2-1 in the first round of state and Johnson was named Metro Sound Coach of the Year.
“Last year was a very unique season for us,” said Johnson, who played two seasons for Sealth before graduating in 1974. “We beat Bishop Blanchet for the first time last year, and that was the first time we beat one of the private schools.”
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Finally, the numbers favor Chief Sealth, thanks in part to an influx of international students. With six foreign-born players and families representing 14 nations, the Seahawks have done it with diversity.
“We’ve been working together for four years and we’ve stuck together,” said senior Sean Umeda, whose mother is from Montreal. “We have all these races and backgrounds coming together. It took some time to work it out.”
Johnson credits the Seattle School District’s open-enrollment policy.
“It’s the kids coming back to the area where they are supposed to be,” he said. “In the past, Sealth wasn’t one of the popular schools to come to, but now it’s been remodeled and we have more to offer. We went international, too.”
Communication on the field is sometimes a challenge.
“All these guys from different backgrounds, they all have different styles of playing,” said senior Paal Nilssen, who has Norwegian ancestry. “It’s hard at first to connect with them. But after a while, you understand how they are playing.”
Soccer is their international language.
“We just find a way to work together,” said senior midfielder Mori Tsuchiya, whose father was born in Japan.
“It’s all about eye contact.”
The program is enjoying unprecedented success. A total of 80 players turned out for soccer this spring, including 17 seniors and 10 returning starters. Tsuchiya is the returning Metro Sound Player of the Year after posting 12 goals and 10 assists in 2012.
“There’s been a lot of confidence coming back into this year,” said the 57-year-old Johnson. “We’ve been successful because I’ve had a four-year run with these kids. They’re seniors and they’re at their best.
“We’ve got the talent. We just have to keep the kids focused.”
The Seahawks are 8-1-1 this season and made a statement with a 2-0 win over Bainbridge. It was the first defeat for the Spartans since they won last year’s Class 3A state championship. Tsuchiya and Benjamin Lee both found the net, and senior goalkeeper Kristian Nilssen kept a clean sheet.
Leading the defense is Umeda, one of the captains along with defender/midfielder Xahil MacDonald.
“We just have such a strong defensive core,” Johnson said.
Johnson remembers when no one wanted be part of the school’s soccer program.
“It was tough to get kids interested enough to come out to be part of a losing system,” he said. “For my first eight years, we were just a bad program. … I was wondering why I was out there.”
The numbers are on the Seahawks’ side now.