I first encountered Bilal Hersi on a late spring evening in 2017. I was in Maine working on “One Goal,” my book about the Lewiston High School boys soccer team. His older sister, Halima, invited me to join the family for iftar, the meal after sunset during Ramadan.

Bilal Hersi, a former Lewiston High School standout, is in his sophomore season at Siena College in Loudonville, New York. Amy Bass photo

Halima and I met in the bleachers of Don Roux Field on a hot summer day. Her daughter Sundus, one of the children “One Goal” is dedicated to, was running in the youth track league under the watchful eye of coach Kim Wettlaufer. Halima was studying for an upcoming college exam, while I was taking notes for the book. We started chatting, and I quickly realized she was the only daughter of Abdullahi Abdi and Nadifo Issak, part of Lewiston soccer’s royal family.

When I arrived at the apartment complex that night, Bilal’s older brother, Abdijabar, then an assistant soccer coach at the high school and now a coach at Central Maine Community College, came outside to tell me that we’d be gathering at his parents’ place for the meal.

I was greeted by a magnificent spread of food and the joyous cacophony that only a multigenerational close-knit family can create. I said hello to Coach Abdi, described in “One Goal” as “the coach of everyone,” and hugged Sundus and her siblings. In the living room, past the table laden with chicken and rice and sambusa, stood Bilal — a soccer ball, of course, at his feet. That night, he was simply one of Halima’s younger brothers, the tall, lanky one with a grin that filled the room.

Bilal’s journey since that first night I met him has been the stuff that Maine sports legends are made of. That fall, on Garcelon Field at Bates College, Bilal netted two goals to finish off Brunswick in the boys A North quarterfinal. Five minutes into the second half of the regional final against heavily favored Bangor, Bilal pulled Lewiston out of a 1-0 deficit to tie the game, and then created a critical assist for the winning goal, putting Lewiston into the championship game for the third time in four years.

We all know how that turned out — a second Lewiston championship in three years and the first of back-t0-back Blue Devils titles.


Flash forward to Wednesday afternoon in New Rochelle, New York, my home for the last 10 or so years. Under a sky bluer than former Lewiston coach Mike McGraw’s eyes, Bilal Hersi took to the turf at Iona College wearing the gold and green of the NCAA Division I Siena Saints.

Bilal landed at Siena just as COVID-19 decided that intercollegiate sports needed to take a break. The transition from Lewiston High School to Siena, a private Franciscan liberal arts college in Loudonville, New York, was tough enough, never mind in the context of a global pandemic.

His first year, he says, was about “just taking in everything as it came.” He hit some rough points, both in terms of who he was and where he was.

“At first there was a little struggle,” he says when asked about being a Muslim student-athlete at a Catholic college. “I’ve always been around individuals who I shared the same beliefs with, so I was hit with a little culture shock, but thankfully I have an understanding team and school behind me, willing to learn and accept who I am as a person first.”

While Bilal stretched with his teammates before Wednesday’s game, the strong relationships he enjoys with them was evident, his trademark warmth blanketing those around him with constant high-fives, hugs and pats on the back.

“He’s doing well for us,” Siena coach Graciano Brito acknowledged to me, while adding that Bilal has had plenty to deal with. “He confronted a lot when he arrived, with the pandemic, the normal transition to college, and balancing his religion in a new environment — it’s a lot of adaptation.”


Bilal, too, talks about adaptation, and sees this year — his sophomore year — as his first real year as a student-athlete, knowing better “what to expect.”

“It’s more like a freshman season,” Brito says. “He’s doing awesome, but has a lot of room to grow, a lot of potential, and we are going to be patient with him. A player cannot just switch from high school to the college game.”

Of course, Bilal was no ordinary high school player. As a two-year captain and the all-time leading scorer of the storied Blue Devils, he was a two-time state champion, two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Maine, a three-time All-American selection, and named the Global Premier Soccer National Team Player of the Year.

But when a big fish heads to a Division I pond, there will be change.

“His biggest modification,” Brito says of Bilal’s transition from high school star to collegiate player, “is the speed of the college game — he has had to adjust to that.”

Throughout the pandemic, Bilal worked hard, even travelling to Africa, where his parents and older siblings were born, to play for Somalia’s U-20 national team. Last spring, as America began to crawl its way back, Bilal started in all eight Siena matches salvaged in the wake of the pandemic, scoring his first collegiate goal on April 3 at Iona.


That work ethic comes as no surprise to Lewiston Athletic Director, Jason Fuller: “He is a great example of what can happen when you do the right things.”

Now, with college sports back on track and the coronavirus on the run, Bilal is finding his way into headlines again. Last month, he was named the MAAC Conference Offensive Player of the Week for his role in Siena’s comeback win against Brown, which included an assist for the game-tying goal, and, two minutes later, the game-winning goal.

Mike McGraw liked that goal.

“Bilal has made an impact this season,” the retired Blue Devils coach says. “He’s been instrumental to their improved season from a year ago. He told me last year he had a read on how the conference he is in is, and felt he could make a contribution. I think he has, and he’s only a sophomore.”

Dan Gish, who took the reins from McGraw and has just completed a 13-0-1 regular season with a Lewiston squad that features Bilal’s younger brother, Khalid — who the announcer at the game against Bangor described as “shooting laser beams” — concurs.

“Bilal is living the dream — all the extra touches, training and improving himself academically is paying off,” Gish said. “I love how he has adapted to the college game at a high level. We are very proud of him.”


While Loudonville is a good five-hour drive from Lewiston, the Hersi family remains close. Coach Abdi and a few of Bilal’s brothers headed down for Siena’s 2-2 draw against Fairfield, in which Bilal scored the Saints’ first goal, while Halima brought her brood to Bryant College in Rhode Island to see him play.

“Watching Bilal at a college level was astonishing” she says of that day. “He is a good kid and his positivity reflects on his teammates and on the field. I enjoyed watching him and plan to return for another game.”


Amy Bass is a Professor of Sport Studies and Chair of the Division of Social Science and Communication at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, whose book about the Lewiston High School boys soccer team, “One Goal: A Coach, A Team, and the Game that brought a Divided Town Together,” was named a best book of 2018 by the Boston Globe and Library Journal.

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