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Lewiston High School's state soccer title is a salve after last month's mass shooting

When the Lewiston High School Blue Devils boys' soccer team won a state championship, they brought joy to a community that was rocked by a mass shooting in late October.
Russ Dillingham
Sun Journal via AP
When the Lewiston High School Blue Devils boys' soccer team won a state championship, they brought joy to a community that was rocked by a mass shooting in late October.

Updated November 13, 2023 at 3:05 PM ET

Last month, police used the high school parking lot in Lewiston, Maine, as a staging area in the manhunt for a mass murderer. Today, Lewiston High School is celebrating a state championship, after its boys' soccer team won a nail-biter in overtime, 3-2, over the weekend.

"We just wanted to give back to the city with all they have gone through," the Lewiston Blue Devils' Tegra Mbele told the Sun Journal newspaper.

As goalie Payson Goyette put it, "We have been saying the past few weeks, 'Do it for the city.' "

The city is grateful: Lewiston thanked the team for bringing "great joy to our hearts" on its Facebook page.

"Through all the dark times, I think light shines through and I think this is a great example of that," Lewiston Athletic Director Jason Fuller told NPR, "and it's a very special one."

A late goal settles an intense title matchup

Mbele scored the first goal of the game, but it was his breakaway goal with just a bit over a minute left in overtime that sent the crowd into euphoria. The score sealed a back-and-forth showdown with Deering High School in the Class A state championship.

The Blue Devils threaded a nicely weighted pass through Deering's central defense — and when Mbele caught up to it on the right side, he calmly flipped the ball past the Rams' sliding goalie and inside the far post for the win.

Following tradition, the Lewiston squad celebrated their win by gathering together on the field, before rushing at their fans in the stands for embraces and high-fives.

"What a journey that will never be forgotten," coach Dan Gish said on Monday via X, formerly Twitter.

The emotional win came just 17 days after Lewiston was gripped by horror, plunged into lockdown after a gunman killed 18 people at a bowling alley and a bar.

Those killed included Lucy Violette, 73, who worked as a secretary for Lewiston Public Schools for more than 50 years. She and her husband, Bob, died at the bowling alley where they had long been integral to a youth league.

Soccer, and Somali community, helps uplift Lewiston

When the soccer team returned to the field after last month's violence, Gish and his players embraced the "Lewiston Strong" motto taken up by the school and community as it copes with last month's tragedy.

"The kids certainly knew that they wanted to do something for the city, and they kind of embraced that right off the bat," in hopes of giving their community something to celebrate, Fuller said.

When they came to classes Monday, many players wore their new championship medals and were "still on cloud nine," he added.

The title is the Blue Devils' fourth state championship in the past decade — a rise to excellence that has been linked to Lewiston becoming a new home to Somali refugees and immigrants in the early 2000s.

The people and the town sorely needed each other: When hundreds of Somalis began to arrive in Lewiston, the town's housing vacancy rate stood at 20 percent, as then-University of Maine sociologist Kimberly Huisman Lubreski wrote in 2011.

"I believe we saved Lewiston," Fatuma Hussein, who moved to the town in 2001, said in August.

The path was sometimes bumpy, Hussein said. But in 2015, the high school soccer team's drive to a long-sought state title reflected the successful melding of an influx of young Africans into a mill town with deeply French-Canadian roots and a love for hockey.

The story even inspired a book, One Goal, by Amy Bass, a professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College.

A fairy tale, or destiny?

"Fairy tales do happen!" the Blue Devils' athletics department declared after Saturday's win.

Bass also invoked that phrase, ahead of the final.

"It is, indeed, a bit of a fairy tale, because fairy tales are not just about living happily ever after" and saving the day, Bass said on member station Northeast Public Radio.

"Fairy tales are also dark, with horrific details — the original versions of Charles Perrault's 'Little Red Riding Hood' and Hans Christian Andersen's 'Little Mermaid' come to mind — that offer us warnings about the world we live in, and the terrible people we may have to combat."

Those stories serve as cautionary tales, Bass noted.

"But then, again, fairy tales remind us that amidst the dark, there is the good, the happily ever after, the saving of the day. Sport, too, often feels like that."

And in Lewiston, she added, the soccer team's latest success felt like more than saving the day. It felt, she said, like destiny.

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Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer, reporter and editor, and a leader on NPR's flagship digital news team. He has frequently contributed to NPR's audio and social media platforms, including hosting dozens of live shows online.