Lewiston senior Noralddin Othman, who returned to the team this season after being out of the state last year, has been an integral part of the team’s success this year and will have a big impact on Saturday’s state championship game. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)
LEWISTON — Nuri Othman came back.
And as if the journey from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Lewiston, Maine, wasn’t long enough, the nine-month journey rehabbing from knee surgery has only made Othman’s comeback all the more improbable — and rewarding.
“I never thought I would be back,” Othman said.
Back meant coming back to Lewiston, where he lived and played soccer for the Lewiston High School boys’ soccer team in the 2014 and 2015 seasons as an underclassman. His Blue Devils career could have ended on a high note that second year, with Lewiston winning its first state championship after losing in the Class A final the year before.
He moved with his family to Minnesota the following year and joined the soccer team at his new school. That season ended on anything but a high note. Midway through the season, he tore his ACL and meniscus. Surgery took place in January of this year.
“First day (after surgery) I was like, ‘I’m done. My soccer career just ended,'” Othman said. “Most of my family told me to stop playing soccer; my mom told me to stop. She was really sad, but she didn’t want to see me in pain.”
But Othman didn’t stop.
He worked hard to come back, and before the start of the new school year he came back to Lewiston for a visit.
“I just wanted to visit my friends because I played with them in 2015,” he said. “I wanted to see them. It’s been so long since I’d seen them, so I had to come visit them. And I have family here, too. My uncle lives here. Coach Abdi Hersi, he’s my uncle, so I had to come here and visit him. Also, I wanted to see how the coaches and the school were doing, and then they told me to play soccer. It was the beginning of the season, so I just ended up switching and playing.”
“(His mom and dad) allowed him to come live in Maine, which is a great thing because he’s very happy,” Lewiston coach Mike McGraw said. “And I think we’re very happy.
“I was very excited,” McGraw said. “I said to myself, ‘This is good, this is something that we’ll need.’ We could get along without him, but I don’t think we would have the same kind of success.”
Othman was back, but neither he nor the Blue Devils picked up where he left off in 2015. For one, only he and Muktar Ali remained of that storied 2015 squad.
“I felt like the guys are new, they don’t have that experience to be a champ, and I felt like I’m not fit, too,” Othman said. “Muktar is the only player that I played with on the state champ. So I was like it’s really hard to win the trophy this year.”
“At first, Nuri was a little apprehensive because he didn’t have the same guys around him who had the commitment and maturity. But as the season went on, the coaches had to do a lot of work to try to develop that maturity and leadership, and so he did, too,” McGraw said.
Despite his championship experience, Othman didn’t immediately become a leader on the team, even one as young as this year’s Blue Devils. He had to earn his teammates’ trust.
“You don’t just walk in and become a captain,” McGraw said. “But when he came in, after some of the preseason and then after a couple of games, it was evident, and I spoke with the captains. I said, ‘Do you think that he would be a good captain?’ And they immediately said, ‘Yeah, we want him.’ And I think everybody was just waiting for him to be named a captain.
“He’s a real big part, because now, they listen.”
“(In) 2015, I used to listen from the elders, the senior guys. I used to always pay attention, learn from them,” Othman said. “These guys, they always learn from me. All of them, they listen for me.”
McGraw said Othman spoke up at halftime of Wednesday’s North regional final at Bangor, when the players get a chance to talk alone before the coaches join in.
“When we came over and we gave them the things that we wanted to do to maybe make adjustments, they were ready for it,” McGraw said. “That’s something that was missing last year.
“He’s brought maturity. He’s brought knowledge. His knowledge of the game, he understands the game. Coaches, whether it’s Dan (Gish) or whether it’s Abdijabar (Hersi), they’ll mention something and he immediately knows what we’re talking about. And then he can translate it.”
It took time for Othman to be able to talk the talk with his teammates. It took him just as much time to walk the walk in the physically demanding position of defensive midfielder.
“Every day after school, go to the gym, work on my knee, see a trainer, ice it every day,” Othman said. “Basically, I end up feeling good and fit again.
“(The knee has) been really good, but every tough game I’ve played it gets swollen,” he said. “Every time it swells, I see a trainer. I keep working on it, I see the trainer, I get ice on it. Basically, EL game and Bangor, it was the two toughest teams we played against this year, both of them my knee just got fat. Now it feels normal.”
Othman said he expects the knee to feel just fine in Saturday’s Class A state championship game against Portland. It will be his third state final and a chance at a second state title.
“This one feels like more special because 2015, we basically had like every single position; we were packed. Every position was strong,” Othman said. “But this year, I felt like most of us are sophomores. We have sophomores and we have juniors, most of them, so they don’t have the experience. But even with that, we went all the way to the state final.”
McGraw said having Othman back has meant “everything” to this year’s team.
“Would we be in a state game without him? That’s a good question, because you never know with kids. Somebody may come to the forefront,” McGraw said. “But it was a lot better having him.”