Jesuit High aids soccer ‘brothers’ from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico

Published January 5 2018
Updated January 5 2018

TAMPA — Moments before Thursday’s soccer game began, players from Jesuit and Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola met at midfield. The boys looked on as a referee flipped a coin, then they shook hands, and, together, said a prayer — some in English, some in Spanish.

The matchup marked the end of the first day of the inaugural Jesuit Soccer Tournament, in which eight schools, including four local and four from out of town, would participate in three days of competition.

More than 1,000 miles and a different native language separated the squads. But below the surface, there was a shared connection.

San Ignacio is an all-boys Catholic school in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a country that was decimated by Hurricane Maria when it barreled through the Caribbean last September. It’s been more than 100 days since the United States territory got the brunt of the storm, but still, roughly half the people and many buildings on the island still don’t have power.

That includes Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola.

So for San Ignacio in particular, the weekend tournament was about more than just soccer.

"It’s definitely an escape," said David Richtberg, the school’s athletic director. "Win, lose or draw, they’re going to be out here playing soccer against some great teams. Another Jesuit school. Brothers — they don’t know it — but they’re brothers."

It’s a fact that’s become all the more clear since Maria’s arrival.

In the days following the storm, Jesuit students had a two-day collection for San Ignacio during the school day. Later in the week, the fundraiser was expanded to include Jesuit parents and alumni. In no time, $30,000 was raised — $25,000 going to San Ignacio, and $5,000 for a separate project in San Juan.

"We matter to them," San Ignacio senior Humberto Roura said. "So that’s pretty cool."

• • •

In the early morning hours of Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, the strongest to hit the island territory in nearly 100 years. In his home, San Ignacio senior Nicolas Ballester huddled with his family, until the waters rose so high they had to escape to the roof.

Fortunately, Richtberg said, most of the San Ignacio families made it through the storm safely, but many faculty members lost everything.

Students returned to school two weeks after the storm hit, but there was no electricity. When he walked out onto the soccer field, Richtberg found the goals strewn 200 yards away up a hill. One was wrapped around a tree.

"At the beginning it was really hard because we didn’t have a generator," Ballester said. "We were taking class in the grass and in hallways, anywhere we could find where we could talk a little."

Richtberg, who has been athletic director at San Ignacio for four years, played baseball at USF, and coached baseball and football at Gaither and Alonso high schools before moving to Puerto Rico in 2012. The moment students returned to school, he did everything he could to get them back on the fields. The boys needed a sense of normalcy, he said. And also, he knew the soccer team had a big opportunity coming up.

Long before Maria came through, San Ignacio had plans to take part in the Jesuit Soccer Tournament, something that came about through conversations between Richtberg and Jesuit coach Eric Sims; they knew each other from their time at Gaither. After the storm, Richtberg met with team parents to determine if the trip to Tampa was still feasible.

"That night the parents decided, ‘No, we need to do this. For the boys, for the school. For Puerto Rico. For everybody,’ " Richtberg said. "There was really a very short moment of uncertainty."

The San Ignacio soccer team didn’t start playing again until November, and by that time, most of its season was already gone. The school’s maintenance staff managed to fix the goals, and without lights, Ballester said, the team took advantage of whatever daylight was left after school ended to practice.

San Ignacio got to play just six local games during its shortened season, so the team was especially grateful, Ballester said, for the chance to play three more in the Jesuit tournament.

For the Tigers, it was also a chance to come face-to-face with resiliency.

"They suffered a lot and they’re still suffering. Their school’s been decimated. … Some of these kids still don’t have power," said Father Richard C. Hermes, president of Jesuit. "For our boys to say, ‘Hey, they’re still going on with their lives, they’re playing soccer, doing things they love.’ I think it’s means a lot to them."

• • •

The game Thursday was scoreless at halftime, but after the break, Jesuit forwards Connar Stuart and Zachary Board notched goals in the 43rd and 48th minutes, respectively, to give the Tigers a 2-0 victory.

For San Ignacio, the outcome wasn’t what they’d hoped it would be. Still, throughout the match, players came up to the Tigers on the field to express their appreciation for Jesuit’s generosity.

Jesuit defender Andres Cartaya, who has family members still living in Puerto Rico without power, just shrugged it off.

"At the end of the day, we’re all kids, and we’re all the same, we just live in different parts of the world," he said. "They were thanking us, but really it was just out of our hearts."

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