GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- A friendly contest between players from two very different cultures attracted the largest crowd ever to see a men's or women's soccer match on the Cornerstone campus Aug. 23 when the Golden Eagles hosted the Haitian women's national team.
"It's a very special atmosphere," Haiti coach Shek Borkowski said with a smile.
Approximately 1,000 fans jammed into the bleachers and stood along the sidelines and in the corners of the field to watch the Haitians score a pair of goals in the last five minutes of the first half en route to a 2-0 victory on an unforgettable summer's eve that participants from both sides will long cherish.
"I got the e-mail from them back in May and I knew this could be a pretty special event," Cornerstone coach Randy Strawser said. "It was a great opportunity for our girls to compete against their national team.
"It all turned out like I thought it would. It's just a perfect summer night and there are a lot of people here, including some from a Haitian church in Grand Rapids, here to support the team from their nation.
"It has just been a great experience for everybody."
The Haitian team, which has been touring the U.S. and playing matches against colleges since April in an effort to prepare to attempt to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in its history, spent time bonding with the Golden Eagles while taking part in a soccer camp and making a trip to a local ice cream parlor.
"It was really cool to play against people from another culture," CU senior midfielder Kelley Ritsema of Traverse City said following the match. "Soccer is a universal language. Although most of them didn't speak English, it's a beautiful thing that we could still communicate with them through our soccer.
"They got here Wednesday and helped us with our camp. Afterward, we all went out for ice cream and just hung out," she added. "It was a lot of fun having them here and sharing an incredible experience."
The Haitian team stayed overnight on the Cornerstone campus.
The team is scheduled to return Sept. 16 to Port-au-Prince, the nation's capital, which remains largely in shambles, according to Borkowski following the massive 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 316,000 people, injured about 300,000 more and left nearly 1 million homeless.
Donations for the Haiti Foundation Against Poverty collected during the game raised $2,800.
"If you've ever been to Port-au-Prince, it's a pretty tough place to grow up," said Borkowski, who's originally from Poland. "It's still very economically depressed and very physically depressed. For the girls to come here and see green spaces and a place like Grand Rapids, there's no places like this in Haiti for them. There's still rubble on the streets. On this trip, we know the girls are eating properly and they're getting a chance to play against good competition, which is important for us to do.
"It's tough to get games against South American teams and it's impossible to get games against European teams because of their schedules," he added. "So our best option is to come to the U.S. and play here."
The much faster, stronger and more experienced players on Haiti's squad controlled the tempo against the Golden Eagles from start to finish. Nadia Valentine scored at the 4:37 mark of the opening half and Roselord Borgella added another goal with 2:47 remaining until the intermission.
"It was hard to keep up with them. They're fast technically and with their touches," Ritsema said. "It definitely helps make us a better team facing them because they're playing at such a higher level."
Strawser said meeting the Haitian team is something he'll never forget.
"I'm so pleased we could be a part of this. A lot of people are helping them since the earthquake. A lot of nations have reached out to them and a lot of schools in the U.S. have reached out to them.
"They're trying to prepare to qualify for the 2015 World Cup. That's their goal."
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