Sun. Mar 26th, 2023

Amid the triumph, struggle, victory, and turmoil that is high school soccer, an interesting story has formed in Minnesota’s Class A boys soccer scene.

That story is Maranatha Christian Academy’s story, one of a difficult trek that nonetheless ends at a mountain top of MSHSL honors, a trip to U.S. Bank Stadium, and a section title.

Minnesota’s Class A soccer is primarily populated by private schools, frequently of a religious-nature. That’s the case for Maranatha Christian Academy, which is based in Brooklyn Park and describes itself as a private Christian school. Maranatha play in the Skyline Conference via the MSHSL Class A, Section 5A. This pits them against the likes of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, St. Croix Lutheran, and New Life Academy.

On the sideline for Maranatha are two names that may sound familiar for an active Sota Soccer reader, for they are inseparable from Minnesota’s lower league scene. Ad Bilani, the founder of Vlora FC, stands as head coach. Next to him, Ian Sendi, a founder of and player for FC Minneapolis.

The full varsity boys team and both coaches celebrate their Section 5A title. Courtesy of Maranatha Christian Academy.

Bilani heard about the opening while looking for a new coaching position ahead of the 2022 season after moving. Vlora FC assistant coach Marcus Anthony had connections to the team through his physical training work and mentioned the opportunity to Bilani, who was later hired on the spot following an interview with Drew Rongere. Rongere was appointed in November, 2021. Bilani was his first major hire.

“When I first joined the school, I was skeptical. All I heard was it was a basketball school,” Bilani told Sota Soccer. “We had tryouts, and we only had seven players come to tryouts, and obviously you want to have options in tryouts… When I joined, I wanted to make sure that everybody gelled and found a family mentality. Most importantly I wanted the group to be solid and compete. I feel like with time we started to do that, but it took a lot of hard work.”

Bilani would have to work hard and patiently to build his roster, eventually sourcing talent from basketball players and even several middle school students. Eventually, he’d get a team together and the work of implementing his ideas would begin.

“What I found to be very helpful, something that helped me keep going was the help from our athletic director,” Bilani continued. “I had never seen one that cared so much about sports, not just one specific sport but all sports… The school had changed how they wanted to do things… They helped me get better as a coach, all the obstacles and the boys, they unlocked other levels of me as a coach. Not only did I bring the best out of them, they brought the best out of me.”

Tevin Asiago (12) plays the ball for Maranatha. Courtesy of Maranatha Christian Academy.

Bilani’s local coaching experience ranges across many organizations and clubs, including Egan Wave, Edina Soccer Club, Fusion SC, Urban Ventures, and the Saint Paul Blackhawks. Bilani brings plenty of MSHSL history as well, having coached at Minneapolis Southwest and Saint Paul Highland Park.

Sendi brings his own lengthy list of experience to the team. He most recently spent 2020 and 2021 coaching boys and girls at Highland Park High School as the Junior Varsity Coach. Bilani explained that Sendi was both a great partner for the soccer side of the project and an important perspective to have given the school’s religious roots.

“I’ve known Ian Sendi for many years. Ian and [Amir Mian] had been bugging me for years to get my team into the UPSL, Vlora had been playing at the time in the MASL and tournaments. That’s how I met Ian and Amir… With Ian, I’ve known him for years and also he was my assistant coach at Saint Paul Highland Park… Ian works with a church, he’s very religious himself. I don’t really come from a religious background. I felt like to be a part of this environment, a Christian school, you need someone who understands that. Knowing Ian’s background as a soccer coach as well, I think he was a good fit.”

Ultimately, Maranatha’s regular season campaign proved to be a hard-fought but difficult one. The Mustangs managed a 2-5-1 conference record, 5-10-1 overall, and finished 7th of 9 in the Skyline Conference, Section 5A. The stretch would prove key to molding the team’s mentality.

“The thing with long time soccer players is you have to be a big believer,” the Maranatha head coach continued. “If you don’t believe you can win then why play,” Bilani explained. “So from the beginning we told everybody, you put in the work, come in, listen to us, we promise you we’ll have a successful season… Everytime we lost a game, the boys were learning from it. We were figuring out our formation, and we were really going through the ABC’s with the boys.”

Maranatha celebrate their historic, first-ever Section 5A title. Courtesy of Maranatha Christian Academy.

The postseason, however, would prove to be where Maranatha Christian Academy shined brightest. The Mustangs would battle their way through the first two rounds of the section tournament, which they entered as the 4th seed and with a losing record. A close 2-1 win over Lincoln International on Oct. 12th would open the doors for a run, and a 3-0 win over Avail Academy would give Bilani and the boys a spot in the section final alongside the Mustang girls, both games being played at the Breck School.

“[The game against Lincoln] was very cold and it was a sloppy game. Both teams didn’t play special and I told the boys at half time, these kind of games go to the team that wants it more,” the Vlora FC founder explained. “[In the section semifinal against Avail Academy] I told the boys, this is everything for us. This is history. If you want to make history and break records, this is it… We outplayed them, we wanted it more, we won all our 50/50’s. At the end of the day, you could tell the boys had the energy and they were linked together.”

Facing second seed Cristo Rey Jesuit, the Mustangs pulled off the upset with a 2-1 win to become Section 5A champions on Oct. 18th, with a winning second half goal from midfielder Logan Coleman, his first of the season. While the girls own inspired run ended in a section final defeat, the school would still be headed to state. Prior to 2022, the Mustang boys had never made it further than the section semifinals.

“The boys really wanted to prove that we could beat them. We were David and Goliath… They scored on us the first two, three minutes. They made it tough. The boys didn’t give up… Seeing the boys’ faces, the parents’ faces, how happy they were. It was amazing. That’s what brings you joy for what you do.”

State would prove to be an unbelievable chapter in the team’s history. Paired up with first seed and reigning champs Southwest Christian, who ended the year with a 15-5 record and with the Class A topscorer on their roster, it was Maranatha, the only team in this year’s state tournament with a losing record, who came on top. Their 3-2 win on Oct. 27th, sealed by a late Jaydon Dimitrov penalty kick, would pave the way to a game at U.S. Bank Stadium.

“Going into that game I had to prepare the boys and basically, we had to make it a game that wasn’t comfortable for Southwest Christian,” Bilani explained. “We played mainly in the midfield, away from our goal. We pressed them tight, didn’t let them turn or let them play their typical game.”

That game at “The Bank” on Nov. 1st would prove to be a tough one, a 6-0 loss to eventual state champions St. Paul Academy and Summit School, but the journey would be worth the work. A 1-1 draw against Legacy Christian in the third place game would see both teams awarded the third place title, per league rules. Toli Legesse and Jaydon Dimitrov would also both earn end of the year honors, named to the 2022 MSHSL Class A All-Tournament team.

Jaydon Dimitrov (10) celebrates his year-defining penalty kick goal to beat Southwest Christian. Courtesy of Maranatha Christian Academy.

“It was a great experience for the boys, I think they got a little too hyped about the occasion and forgot we had a game to play… against St. Paul Academy, with lots of experience and club experience, I knew it could backfire on us and it did… But, the experience cannot be taken away, playing at U.S. Bank Stadium and in the state semifinals. I made sure that every single player, including our 7th grader, stepped onto the field and a feel of it because I wanted them to want that more, push themselves so they can reach those levels again.”

With the season freshly in the rearview mirror, Bilani is happy with what was accomplished this season, both on the pitch and in the locker room

“I feel proud of the work that everyone put in. I feel happy for the results but most importantly for the culture we’ve built… That was our main goal, we wanted to change the look of the program, from being a basketball school to also being a soccer school. Having the trophies and all that is a cherry on top.”

The wait for the next season will be a long one, though the Maranatha boys will certainly be a name to watch when high school soccer does return in 2023.

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