St. John's Get Smarts From Streets

Filip Bondy
Date Published: 
New York Daily News

RICHMOND, Va. It has never been the city's game, but the kids from St. John's found a way to play their soccer, anyway.

Instead of three sewers for a homer, there was a driveway or garbage can for a goal. Instead of a schoolyard hoop, there was a small plot of grass, a potholed street with an imaginary penalty box or a club team within commuting distance. The ethnic spirit of the sport burrowed deep into the concrete and the schoolyards, where it sprouted roots that led all the way to today's NCAA championship game against Florida International.

This weekend is proving the sport is not just a suburban pastime. Five players who start or play regularly off the bench for the Red Storm come from the outer boroughs Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. They bring with them a cultural heritage of the persistent outsider, the urban ad-libber. They grew up in their own Little Italy or Jamaica, carved out of the greater landscape.

"We played on 24th Road, in front of my house in Queens," said midfielder Carlo Acquista, who set up the winning goal in St. John's 2-1 semifinal victory Friday over Creighton.

"Me, my next door neighbor, Wilson Lemos, his friend Chris Kaloudis and my brother Joe," Acquista remembered yesterday. "Two against two, maybe 30 yards across. Our driveway was one goal. Mary Kalermous' driveway was the other goal. We had the only perfect driveways on the street, straight across from each other.

"We broke a few windows. But Mrs. Kalermous was very patient. She had a kid, too."

Acquista learned the sport from his Italian father, Rosario, who starred for the Long Island City High School state champs four years running. Carlo kept dribbling on his street, full of potholes, until he joined the Long Island junior soccer league.

The city finally repaved 24th Road, when Aquista was already in high school. Too late for Acquista's games.

"The place got in my blood," Acquista said. "I could have gone to Hartwick. But I couldn't adapt. I'd have missed the potholes and the garbage."

Acquista went to Holy Cross High School, playing on the same school and club team as his good friend, Jimmy Buscemi. Buscemi is now another St. John's midfielder from the Whitestone section of Queens.

Buscemi grew up next door to P.S. 184, where he went to school. There was a small cement courtyard, a haven at recess. Buscemi and his friends would lay big garbage cans on their sides for goals, try to shoot the ball inside the barrels.

"We'd put sticks on the outside of the cans, to make sure they didn't roll away with the wind," Buscemi said. "Sometimes, when we had more guys playing, we'd put out two garbage cans on each end and try to shoot between them."

Ranford Champagnie, a defender and midfielder, moved to the Bronx from Jamaica the country, not the Queens neighborhood more than 13 years ago. He lived near James Monroe High School, where he attended classes. There was a patch of a park, and the neighborhood's ethnic populations would melt into a series of pick-up soccer matches.

"The baseball pitch would change into the soccer pitch," Champagnie said. "There were Jamaicans, Ghanaians, Ecuadorians. We'd all mix, and play together. We didn't really play one group against the other. It depended more on shirt colors than language."

Later, Champagnie joined the Brooklyn Rovers, a club team, sometimes against his future St. John's teammate, Brent Sancho, from the Brooklyn Italians by way of Flatbush. Sancho played his pick-up soccer at Caton Park, mostly with Haitians and Latinos.

Sancho, another defender and midfielder, knew early on he never wanted to leave New York. He had friends who did, and they didn't like what they saw. Too much space. Too much time. They all came crawling back, so Sancho stayed put at St. John's, a school without a grass soccer field of its own.

His worst fears about the outside world were confirmed Friday night in Richmond, after the victory over Creighton. His parents were waiting for Sancho outside the team hotel, when a quaint, runaway trolley rammed into their auto, slamming it into another car occupied by several St. John's public relations officials.

"I looked out my window, and I saw the aftermath of the accident," Sancho said. "I ran down, and my parents were all right. They were already standing outside the car, talking."

Sancho's parents and the St. John's officials were fitted for neck braces and taken to a hospital for precautionary exams. Nobody was seriously hurt, but certain suspicious ideas were reinforced.

Life outside New York, beyond the patch-quilt soccer fields, is perilous.

The team will be back in Queens soon enough, after one more appointment. Today, on a regulation grass field far from 24th Road and Caton Park, St. John's inventive soccer players try to become the school's very first national sports champion.

THEY ALREADY own the imagination to make fields out of potholes. Florida International cannot be so hard.

"I feel this team is giving something back to the city," Sancho said. "We're one step from what we dream about."