URBANA — When Jonathan Lukusa arrived in America from the Congo, he spoke a universal language.
He was 7 years old at the time of the relocation but already was a veteran at the sport Americans call soccer.
“I started playing when I was 2,” Lukusa said.
He spoke some French but feeling comfortable with other second-graders and teachers was a supreme challenge in the United States.
“I tried my best,” he said, “but it was really hard. I couldn’t communicate with the teachers or the kids. One teacher knew a little French, so I’d speak to her a little.”
Lukusa is now a senior at Urbana High and is still fluent in the same area as when he arrived: futbol.
He and his history-making Urbana teammates will play in the Class 2A state soccer semifinals at 1 p.m. Friday against Arlington Heights St. Viator at Frankfort’s Lincoln-Way North High School.
A fast learner
Lukusa’s English is improving. That is one of the courses he’s taking this semester, along with English as a Second Language, so he can learn more of the nuances.
“It has been really tough,” Lukusa said. “I don’t know if anybody can do that, come here not knowing or speaking the language.”
He wasn’t alone. His mother, father and two sisters were all in an environment where they needed to learn the customs and how to communicate.
One point has stuck out with Lukusa.
“Follow the rules or you’ll end up in a bad place,” he said.
A team leader
The Urbana soccer team has been in a good place since Lukusa and his highly skilled classmates entered the building. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Lukusa was an impact player from his arrival.
“As a freshman, he was bigger, stronger and faster than a majority of the high school kids,” Tigers coach Randy Blackman said. “His technical skills were lacking but have continued to improve.
“Athletically and physically, he’s a mismatch. His speed and power are a tremendous combination. He is a hard individual to cover.”
Lukusa is not only a scorer but also effectively distributes the ball. He has a team-high 11 assists to go with his 20 goals.
On Urbana’s 20-2 team, only senior Miguel Fierro (21) has more goals.
‘Man among boys’
Lukusa played for a local men’s team with his father until learning about the Little Illini Soccer Club in his preteen years. Champaign Central coach Mick Galeski said Lukusa’s ability to hold his own with whatever group of players is not surprising.
“He is a man among boys,” Galeski said. “His speed and strength creates a lot of chances for himself, but more importantly, his teammates.”
Uni High coach Phil Anders, who directed his own team to second place in last weekend’s Class 1A state tournament, said Lukusa has all of the traits prevalent in outstanding players.
“He can move with speed, strike the ball with power, win the ball in the air and, perhaps more importantly, hold onto the ball, giving his teammates time to move into supporting roles,” Anders said.
Surrounded by talent
Blackman said he especially appreciates one aspect of Lukusa’s play. “He is extremely unselfish and makes people around him look better,” Blackman said.
Lukusa, Fierro and Joseph Lund are the team captains. Collectively, they have 10 years of varsity experience starting for the Tigers.
There’s no jealously within the ranks.
“They lead, and they know sometimes this person will get a score and they may not,” Blackman said. “They realize it’s a team game.”
The team concept is one that Blackman emphasizes.
“One reason Jonathan and Miguel can do what they do are the fabulous players surrounding them,” he said. “Brian Lopez, Saul Downie, Joey Lund, David Anderson, Joel Shea, Gesi Muharremi, Darian Gingold, the whole starting unit is fabulous, and that allows the top-level players to shine.”
Staying with the game
Lukusa first earned All-Area first-team honors as a sophomore. According to Danville coach Chris Griffin, it is recognition he continues to deserve.
“Jon is a true beast on the field,” Griffin said. “When he is on his game, he is virtually unstoppable. He has so many tools, good size, exceptional strength, deceptively good speed, good touch, great leaping ability and a deadly shot. It is hard to pick a way to stop him.”
It is appropriate that Lukusa will play on soccer’s highest stage for prep athletes to conclude his high school career. It was the one activity that helped him feel at home when he moved to a foreign land.
“Soccer has been huge for Jon,” Blackman said. “He found a lot of friends and met people from different countries, people that were going through the language barriers and helped him feel that he wasn’t alone.”
Lukusa’s maturity as a senior is obvious.
“He has developed and worked harder in practice than in previous years,” Blackman said. “He is one guy who keeps everyone else loose. He makes ’em laugh.”
Heading to state
Lukusa’s soccer future — beyond this weekend — is unsettled.
The opportunity to play in college is one possibility but not the only consideration.
“I’m thinking about moving to Belgium and trying out for professional teams,” he said, “and if that doesn’t work out, coming back to go to college.”
He sees himself as a future businessman, but there is urgent business to handle the next two days. Urbana is guaranteed of its 15th state tournament team trophy and would like to make soccer the third sport with a championship.
“I think we’ll do pretty well,” Lukusa said.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on twitter @fredkroner.
Soccer will join the list of boys’ sports in which Urbana High has earned a team trophy at state from the IHSA. The complete list:
YEAR SPORT PLACE
1893-94 Track and field First
1915-16 Track and field Third
1919-20 Track and field Third
1927-28 Track and field Second
1930-31 Track and field Third
1938-39 Golf Third
1940-41 Basketball Second
1941-42 Track and field Second
1945-46 Wrestling Second
1951-52 Cross-country First
1952-53 Cross-country Second
1955-56 Cross-country Third
1959-60 Golf Second
1960-61 Golf Second
2012-13 Soccer TBA