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Puerto Rican soccer team pays it forward in hurricane’s aftermath

San Ignacio returns to the Jesuit soccer tournament where it was aided after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

TAMPA — With just a few minutes left in the soccer match between Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola and Lakeland — the second game for both teams in the Tampa Bay Invitational tournament — two boys waited by the water cooler, drinking from their Gatorade cups as they waited to be subbed in.

"Are you guys actually from Puerto Rico?" the boy in the orange Lakeland jersey asked.

"Born and raised," Joaquin Uriarte replied proudly, a smile stretched across his face.

It's an origin that, 15 months ago, was tied to tragedy.

On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria, then a category-4 storm, barrelled through the island of Puerto Rico, destroying infrastructure and killing more 3,000, according to local government reports.

When the Lions traveled to Tampa last January for the inaugural Jesuit-hosted tournament, they were still dealing with devastation back home. Their school didn't have power and buildings crumbled around them. Jesuit families and alumni donated more than $25,000 to San Ignacio's relief efforts.

"The networking within our schools is great. We had 14 of our high schools send us checks to help out for relief work, and also we had a number of universities from the States send money as well," Father Andrés Vall-Serrasj said. "It was a very generous amount."

Last week, exactly one year after their first trip, the Lions returned to Tampa, following a little bit of healing and a lot of paying it forward.

School resumed at San Ignacio just weeks after Maria passed through, but students had to pitch in to clean up the mess left behind. They sweated in their classrooms, which usually had air conditioning, until power was finally restored in February 2018.

It would still be weeks after that until all the San Ignacio families and teachers had power restored to their own homes.

"It was something totally different from what we lived before," said Uriarte, who had two goals in San Ignacio's 5-0 tournament victory against Lakeland. "We got to live without internet, without technology, so it was all different. It was like passing from our world right now and living in another one."

But while life at San Ignacio eventually returned to normal in a matter of months, the same couldn't be said for people on other parts of the island. So students at San Ignacio, including the boys on the soccer team, stepped up to lend a hand.

The school participated in several forms of relief work, serving meals to those in need, tutoring kids and delivering filters so people on the island could drink water safely.

Sebastian Donato helps lead San Ignacio back into form after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)

The experience, Umberto Donato said, stuck with his son.

"That changed him," said Donato, whose son Sebastian is a senior on the San Ignacio soccer team. "Puerto Rico is a tropical rainforest, and many times, through all that dense foliage, you don't see how much poverty exists. When the hurricane came, it uncovered that poverty."

In many parts of Puerto Rico, the effects of Maria can still be seen daily, said Umberto Donato, a general contractor on the island. Families are still displaced, and infrastructure is not the same, as some of the temporary fixes have begun to wear off.

But through it all, the boys on San Ignacio's soccer team have leaned on the game they love, one thing untouched by Maria's wrath.

Last year, the team was forced to play a shortened schedule because of the hurricane. This year, the soccer season was back to normal, and the Lions won the island championship. On Friday, they celebrated again at the Ed Radice Sports Complex after their dominant victory against the Dreadnaughts.

"We were more confident," said coach José Brenes-LaRoche, whose team fell to Mitchell 2-0 in its first tournament game. "We shot more, and we had results."

The victory against Lakeland gave San Ignacio another chance to play; the Lions took on Middleton on Saturday for third place in the tournament division, beating the Tigers 8-0.

But to Brenes-LaRoche and his team, playing in this tournament is about more than just soccer. Competing alongside the teams that helped San Ignacio in its time of need, he said, makes the privilege of participation that much greater.

"It means a lot," Brenes-LaRoche said, "because it means you're playing on the field not only with soccer players, but with gentlemen."