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Prairie Seeds Academy goalie Sunny Vang made a sliding save on Johnny Moua at practice. The Lycans feature players native to Guinea, Liberia, Cameroon and other countries. Star Tribune photo: Bruce Bisping * bbisping@startribune.com

Mualigbe Keita’s message was clear. Prairie Seeds Academy will move forward no matter how hard outsiders try to bring it down, he said. ¶ “United,” added Keita, a senior soccer player speaking in the distinctive accent of his native Guinea, on the African continent. “We are family here.”

Prairie Seeds, entering its sixth year of competition, is a boys’ soccer family like no other.

The program has been marred by accusations of fielding ineligible players and last fall was at the center of an unprecedented disqualification from the 2012 state tournament. The school’s administration says it is tired of fighting the system and is doing all it can to strip away any negativity attached to its name.

Charged with leading this task is 23-year-old Jason Obarski, a former Apple Valley all-state soccer and all-state football player. Obarski was hired in July after Youssef Darbaki, who remains as the team’s coach, was stripped of those duties.

Changing Prairie Seeds from within won’t be as hard as transforming the outside perception, Obarski said. The Lycans’ troubles getting games scheduled are worse than ever. Obarski made 50 requests for games this season that were either denied or ignored.

“I’m catching everyone up to speed with what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said. “The school is very young. It’s a new process. And there are a lot of rules in the state high school league handbook.”

Success, then eligibility scrutiny

Scheduling games has been a challenge for Prairie Seeds since it went 22-0 in its first season in 2008. Blowout victories against Minnetonka, Coon Rapids and Anoka kept teams from scheduling similar fates.

The Lycans’ team consists mostly of athletes born in foreign countries who moved here with families or are growing up as first-generation Americans. They have brought cultural soccer traditions to the program and their unique talent has meant immediate success for the publicly funded Brooklyn Park charter school. Prairie Seeds won the 2010 Class 1A title and has qualified for state three times.

But with that success, the school also has come under repeated scrutiny in the soccer community, primarily about whether it followed Minnesota State High School League rules regarding player eligibility.

Those battles came to a head last October, after a fight broke out in the final seconds of Prairie Seeds’ victory over Totino-Grace in the section final. A probe of the fight brought to light an ineligible player and prompted the league to disqualify the Lycans from the state tournament in what MSHSL executive director David Stead called an “unprecedented” move.

The battle didn’t stop there. Prairie Seeds appealed the league’s ruling in court, where a judge upheld the action only hours before the team otherwise would have played in the tournament.

Prairie Seeds eventually withdrew its legal action. Totino-Grace pursued legal action against Prairie Seeds players for actions stemming from the fight. The MSHSL also scrutinized players from both teams in a video of the fight, issuing no penalty to some and up to four weeks’ suspensions for others.

In the months that have passed, Prairie Seeds Principal Choua Yang made steps to make amends with Stead and his staff. Her biggest gesture of compliance was to hire Obarski with the blessing of the high school league.

“We’re doing it the right way now and the school is on board for our new beginning,” Obarski said.

Doing what’s best for kids

It hurts Obarski to turn away kids. He estimated 10 individuals won’t play soccer for Prairie Seeds this year because they didn’t meet eligibility requirements. However, he stands his ground on a daily basis no matter how compelling a student-athlete’s excuse might be.

“My dad lost it [paperwork]. I’m not lying. … My doctor travels,” Obarski heard last week.

Obarski’s first act was to create a new 19-page registration packet, including a high school league eligibility statement and transfer checklist. He uses a pen to bookmark the transfer bylaws in the state high school league handbook. He counts Craig Perry, the league’s associate director who deals with eligibility issues, as a source of regular reference.

Perry declined to comment on his relationship with the school. Stead said Obarski is doing a great job and moving forward in a positive way.

Yang, acknowledging the school’s legal battles with the league, said, “I never felt we could win. As a principal, there came a point where I had to ask what is the purpose of Prairie Seeds Academy and the athletic program. We can go right or left, and we did what’s best for the school and what’s best for the kids.”

An education for everyone

Keita’s grasp of English is sharp for someone who didn’t know a word four years ago. He credits this to Prairie Seeds, which he now calls a home. Keita, like many of his fellow students, hopes to learn more about American culture and education and integrate into its society.

It wasn’t long ago that Keita was playing soccer in the streets of Guinea. Now he shares the school’s soccer field with teammates from Liberia, Cameroon and first-generation Americans from all parts of the world.

Totino-Grace boys’ soccer coach Bill Vance recognized this difference and welcomed it, he said in a 2010 interview.

“They don’t play like a typical high school soccer team,” he said at the time. “It was an education [playing them]. … as a whole that individual talent blends really well together.”

With this difference, though, comes a lack of understanding in some areas. Senior Mournir Peterson-Darbaki, whose father is from Morocco and mother from Minnesota, said it’s difficult for players to respond the right way if they don’t know what that approach is. It’s not an excuse, he said, but part of the learning experience for these mostly international students.

He also understands there are consequences to learning experiences.

Ryan Yang, the Prairie Seeds player who threw the first punch in last year’s fight, was charged with disorderly conduct and pleaded guilty. He lost his Division I scholarship to Creighton and is now at a Division II school in Wisconsin.

Prairie Seeds goalkeeper Fernando Magana was charged with a no-contact order and fifth-degree felony assault and eventually left the charter school.

“Maybe it’ll take the next four years to restore our image. It’s tough to bounce back in the public eye after what happened the last three years,” Peterson-Darbaki said.

Obarski is more optimistic. He’s shooting for one year.

Coach Darbaki said he is confident his team will continue to be one of the best in the state. While he accepts the school’s decision to operate in close accord with the high school league, he maintains that Prairie Seeds never violated any rules and his program has been unfairly treated.

“It’s a start,” he said. “It’s the culture that is different. And it’s my hope that people will understand.”

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