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BOYS SOCCER: From Congo orphanage to varsity pitch, the age of Al Toward has arrived

Chet Anderson Stadium was the epicenter of Al Toward’s first career goal with the Lumberjacks. But the shockwaves of this story truly originate over 7,000 miles away -- at an orphanage run by nuns in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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Rick Toward, left, and his son, Al, are joining forces on the varsity level for the first time this fall. Al's path to the Bemidji High School boys soccer team started in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and recently culminated in his first varsity goal.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — Chet Anderson Stadium was the epicenter of Al Toward’s first career goal with the Bemidji High School boys soccer team.

But the shockwaves of this story truly originate over 7,000 miles away -- at an orphanage run by nuns in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“You obviously want all of your kids to be rewarded for the work that they put in,” said Rick Toward, the Lumberjacks’ head coach and Al’s father. “But, of course, there’s a little special sentimentality there to see a kid who comes from a meager background and a tough start to life enjoy that kind of success.”

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Bemidji sophomore Al Toward (10) fights off a challenge during a game against East Grand Forks on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, at Bemidji Middle School.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Al, a sophomore forward and first-year varsity player with BHS, is right at home in Bemidji. He was adopted in 2010 at the age of 4, and he’s grown up as a Toward ever since.

“They’re my family,” said Al, now 16. “That feeling is great, to feel like I have a family and to feel like I’m loved. I feel loved by everybody here and by my family. I feel like a part of that Bemidji culture.”

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Al has three sisters. Harper, the oldest and born in 2000, is the only biological child for Rick and his wife, Sherry Mergens. Rick and Sherry then pursued adoption and found two more daughters in Hana and Massy, both from Ethiopia. Hana came to the United States in 2005, and Massy came in 2007.

Mom and dad then thought their family was complete, but Al radically changed those expectations once he landed on their radar.

“My wife has always been pretty generous, big-hearted and has opened our home,” Rick said. “When I saw that look in her eye (to pursue Al), I said that I love my girls, but it’d be really nice to have a guy to be a dad to and to buddy up with.”

‘A classic Al goal’

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Bemidji High School boys soccer coach Rick Toward watches as his team warms up for the state championship game against The Blake School on Nov. 3, 2018, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer

The Towards’ father-son partnership has now reached the highest stage in town. Rick, in his 28th season as Bemidji’s head coach, has been able to call up Al for varsity minutes this fall. That mentoring dynamic is an extension of their relationship that stretches well beyond the pitch.

“It’s really, really cool to have him be my coach and be my dad at the same time,” Al said. “He teaches me the stuff I should know on the soccer field, but also lessons about what I should do off the field. Whether it’s school, soccer, daily life or anything, (he helps me) be the best person I can be.”

They’ve shared a dozen years together now, but they pulled off a first on Sept. 27 at the Chet. Al scored his first varsity goal during a win over Pelican Rapids, a rebound boot in the 71st minute -- something Rick specifically encouraged his forwards to seek in his halftime speech.

“At halftime, we were in a lead of 3-0… but nobody would go to the net. Nobody would crash in,” Rick said. “I said, ‘You guys have all watched Al play. (I want) a classic Al goal. Somebody hits a shot, the keeper spills it and he’s quick enough to just get in there and tap it home.’”

The example turned out to be prophetic. The players all turned toward Rick after Al’s goal -- in awe of their coach’s foresight.

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“That’s exactly what it wound up being, so everybody turned to me when the goal went in the net like, ‘You said that was going to happen at halftime,’” Rick laughed. “It was a classic Al Toward type of goal, where he’s in the right place at the right time. That’s his strength.”

For Al, it was a surreal moment. As a youngster, he used to pitch in as a ball chaser, and now he’s pursuing goals within the run of play.

“Right when I shot it, it felt super cool to see it go in the back of the net,” Al said. “I always wanted to play on this big stage. I think it’s super cool to actually be here and try to be a part of that. (I’m) trying to live up to the legacy.”

While Al’s journey to the Lumberjacks is a unique one, his presence within his family is undoubtedly his biggest role.

“It’s that fulfilling piece of your life that a lot of us enjoy: having our kids, raising them, seeing those little bits of ourselves in our kids,” Rick said. “I’m very grateful to my wife for making the suggestion that we try this path.”

Micah Friez is the sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he joined the Pioneer in 2015 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing. Follow him on Twitter at @micahfriez for Lumberjack and Beaver updates.
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