Bold change of scenery

Oakland University men’s soccer players Stefan St. Louis, Machel James and Makesi Lewis have enjoyed a lot of success in their college careers.

All three were All-Summit League selections last season and have played major roles in leading Oakland to a third straight regular season Summit League championship this season. Lewis and St. Louis are Oakland’s two leading scorers while James anchors the Grizzlies’ stingy defense.

But they each share a more personal life story that runs much deeper than their on-field accomplishments.

Recruitment to Oakland

St. Louis, James and Lewis were born and raised in Trinidad and played soccer together previously at Fatima College in their home nation.

“It was a public school, but they recruited us to go there because they wanted to do good in soccer,” St. Louis said.

The three players, who are now roommates, were noticed by Gary Parsons, the previous head coach at OU, after they were invited to a soccer camp in Barbados for the region’s best players.

James, who goes by the nickname Jumbo, a name his mother gave to him, had his mind made up as soon as the offer was made to come to Michigan and play for Oakland.

“I always wanted to come to the U.S. because everyone always says the U.S. is the place to be,” James said.

His decision was influenced by another factor as well, he explained. He is the first member of his family to go to college. James has made the most of his educational opportunity by earning Academic All-Summit League honors last year.

For the other two, however, the decision to come to the United States was not so easy. While James jumped at the opportunity to attend college, St. Louis had a hard time choosing whether to come and play for the Grizzlies.

“For me it was different because I hated school,” St. Louis said. The All-Summit League player made his decision after consulting with his mother. “After talking to my mom I decided to come here and play instead of going pro (in Trinidad).”

St. Louis, James and Lewis each said they want to continue their soccer careers and continue to play after their time at Oakland is done.

“I don’t care where I play,” St. Louis said. “Here, Europe, India, it does not matter, I just want to play.”

Lewis, a junior, said he feels the same way that St. Louis does about continuing to play after he leaves OU, but would not mind going home after he is done at Oakland for a few reasons.

“Here the food is way different, I have to adapt to the food every semester,” Lewis said. “I still talk to my family once a week, home (Trinidad) is nice.” “For me it (coming here) was spur of the moment,” Lewis said. “I did not always think about playing soccer in the U.S.”

James added that although all he wants to do is play soccer, he would not return home to Trinidad to play because he does not feel the quality of play is that good and the pay is too low.

New Surroundings

For all three, the new environment had a lot of surprises and the first year was difficult for each of them.

“The people are very different here,” St. Louis said. “In Trinidad the people are more relaxed; it’s just a different environment.”

“To be honest, I hated it here my first year,” James said. “It probably took my whole freshman year to get used to it.”

According to current head coach Eric Pogue, if James had any feelings of regret, he did his best to hide them. Of the three players, Pogue believes James was most accustomed to American style both on and off the field.

James said his transition was also made difficult by the fact that even the soccer was different in the United States.

“In Trinidad we play a lot of possession and the game is slower. Here it is much faster,” he said.

“Jumbo has been very mature and on top of things since day one. He always seemed wise beyond his years,” Pogue said. “He fit right in with the defensive-minded mentality that Gary (Parsons) and I preached every day. I have a scar on my shin from a scrimmage on Jumbo’s first day when he put his six-stud cleats into my shin, drawing blood on a tackle. I knew he would fit right in from the start after that.”

Pogue said that St. Louis did not adapt as quickly to the new lifestyle.

“It was a little bit more of a process for Stefan, making some mistakes along the way, like all guys do, and learning and growing from them,” Pogue said. “He was pretty stubborn out of the gate, but once things started clicking, his development has been dramatic.”

St. Louis, who has played games for Trinidad’s national team, believes that he has matured since he first arrived at Oakland in 2006 and credits Pogue with much of his growth.

“When me and Gary (Parsons) used to have our fights, Pogue was always there,” St. Louis said.

Lewis and Pogue both believe that having St. Louis and James at Oakland when Lewis arrived made the settling process a bit smoother than it would have otherwise been.

“Makesi is an even keel, fun-loving, happy-go-lucky, quiet kid,” Pogue said. “Coming in a year later than Stefan and Jumbo, he learned quickly from the early struggles of the other two, so the learning curve for him wasn’t as steep.”

The three players were forced to adapt to a dramatic culture change, having to balance school work and soccer away from their families and their homes.

But one change in particular startled Lewis during his first year, a struggle that his teammates and coaches could not help him with.

“In Trinidad the coldest we get is probably 80 degrees,” Lewis said. “It was 60 degrees when I got here. I wanted to go home as soon as possible.”

James remembered thinking similarly upon his arrival to Michigan. He said that one time he let the cold weather get the best of him in his freshman year.

“It was the first time I had ever seen snow and it was so cold that I decided not to go out to practice,” James said. “Coach (Parsons) was so pissed.”

St. Louis said that overall he has adjusted well to life at Oakland and is better because of it.

“It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said St. Louis. “I used to get in trouble a lot in the classroom, but I have grown up a lot here and become more mature.”

Team captains

James and St. Louis are serving as co-captains this season for the Grizzlies.

In total, the men’s soccer team has seven international players on the roster and James believes that the leadership he and Stefan provide benefits these players.

“We try to lead them and be there for them so their first year is not as hard as ours was,” James said.

St. Louis agreed with this mentality, adding that, to him, the team is like “one little happy international family.”

Vuk Popovic, a redshirt sophomore, has shared a dorm with the three Trinidadians for the last two years.

“It’s been fun,” Popovic said, referring to his dorm life. He also said that life at Oakland was not always as fun as it is now. The native of Serbia noted that like his three roommates, his first year away from home was very difficult to endure. Popovic’s transition was made easier though, by the leadership of Oakland’s two captains.

“They are by-example leaders,” Popovic said. “Stefan and Jumbo played a big role in helping me my first year. Especially Jumbo, he has been like a big brother ever since I got here, showing me around campus and introducing me to different people.”

The players believe that a lot of the success the team has had comes from the chemistry they share.

“I always know how and where Stefan and Makesi want the ball,” Jumbo said.

Pogue was very proud of his team’s accomplishments this season, but was especially proud of the way his two captains have grown and carried the program with them.

“Jumbo and Stefan have been here through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in this program from 2006 through 2009, so they have put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get us back on top,” Pogue said.

“They have earned the right to wear that captain armband this year and help lead us back to the NCAA tournament. I have a lot of respect for those two guys and how far they have come, not only as soccer players, but more importantly as great young men that represent Oakland University and our soccer program on and off the field in a very positive way.”