Junior Nare is reserved when you first meet him. He has his hood up, hands folded, eyes down. He chuckles when he listens to La Salle soccer teammates Nk Tima and Cam Hall playfully dog on his gaming abilities in FIFA and NBA 2K. He nods politely when they iterate how upbeat, positive, and happy he is. He would describe himself pretty much the same way.

“I’m passionate, happy, and hardworking,” said Nare, a sophomore forward who had three goals and two assists in the Explorers’ 11 games last season to lead the team and earn a spot on the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie Team. “I don’t like when the energy is down. I like there to be a positive environment. I’m very passionate about football — soccer here — and working hard to achieve the dream.”

Nare will be looking for his first points this season when La Salle (1-3) hosts Rider (1-2-1) Saturday night.

His dream started in Johannesburg. But he didn’t immediately realize soccer was his destiny.

“Actually, when I was young, I didn’t like playing football,” he said. “I didn’t like watching it, just didn’t like sports. But then all my friends did it and I felt left out, so I thought I should try it as well. It turns out I was actually good at it.”

“Good” is a bit of an understatement. He boasts an impressive list of accomplishments, including representing his country at the U17 and U20 levels, winning the Golden Boot after helping the U17 South African national team reach the semifinals of the COSAFA U17 championships in 2017, along with being a top scorer for the Black Aces Youth Academy.

The first time suiting up for South Africa was when “the dream” was starting to look more like a reality.

“It was confirmation, almost, that I’m actually good at what I do,” Nare said. “When I went to the camp, there were over 500 kids, and they had to cut it down to 20 players. I was grateful for the opportunity, but also felt pressure because all those other kids wanted to be in the position I was in. So I had to make sure I performed to the best of my ability and confirm to them that they made the right choice by choosing me.”

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He reached a point in his soccer career when had to start making choices of his own. A young, determined, and clearly talented player would have no shortage of offers, many of which wouldn’t require him to be 8,025 miles from home. But Nare was ready to venture beyond his homeland.

“I have a friend that goes to the University of Dayton — we played together in the South Africa national team — and he spoke to a few people,” he said. “[Former La Salle assistant coach Evan Prybutok] contacted me and we spoke and he told me what La Salle was offering. I had just finished high school at the time, so it was a good opportunity to play and get an education at the same time. I guess that’s what did it for me, the fact that it was both school and soccer.”

It wasn’t the first time he had to spend long periods of time away from home. His stints with the national team “helped me to mature as a person” he said. “It helped me learn how to survive by myself without my family.”

Nonetheless, packing up your entire life and moving halfway across the world is a huge adjustment. Going to college in an unfamiliar country and getting used to playing with new teammates is a task not even Nare can make look easy.

“It was a bit tricky at first,” he said. “But then the players that we have here made it easier for me. They explained to me how things work and welcomed me with warm arms, the coaches as well. They made everything easy to adjust to.”

“He was very quiet at first,” Tima said. “We had to break the shell for him. In the beginning, he was quiet, just didn’t say anything. Then, as practices kept going, he started opening up and becoming more himself.”

Said Hall: “He was definitely a little shy at first. Probably a little scared, new country, new people, definitely with kids like us. Once he got out of his shell, it was great having him around.”

But it’s clear Nare is anything but demure when he has a ball at his feet.

“[Nare] is aggressive, wants to run at players and beat them and create chances, score goals,” La Salle coach Taylor Thames said. “The best thing, in my opinion, is his ability to unbalance players to create an advantage. When you have that advantage, you do want to look for goals and get into the box, and he does that really well.”

Even during practice, Nare’s work rate doesn’t let up.

“The way he acts in training and performs in games are pretty similar,” Thames said. “He is just as competitive in those moments in training. He’ll always argue to the death about a point here and there, and it’s because he wants to win. It’s from a good place. He has the ability to bring a good environment around him, and that is positive also.”

Added Tima: “[Nare] comes from a different culture of soccer, from South Africa, which is different from where most of us are coming from in America. He’s coming in with a different style, which helps the team.”

Like any soccer forward, Nare tries to emulate players such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappé. Because of his pace, craftiness and versatility, Thames likens him to Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min. If all goes to plan, Nare would join Son playing professionally in the Premier League, although he would prefer to play for Chelsea FC.

That would have been hard to believe for a younger Nare. He’s gone from a kid with little interest in sports to a college sophomore with multiple international caps and Division I accolades.

“Never stop believing,” Nare said. “Whatever happens in your life, don’t doubt the ability you have and the talent God gave you.”

For now, he’s hoping that ability will help lead La Salle to an A-10 title and NCAA glory. He still has two more years after this one to help make that happen. After that, if things continue going the way they have for him, there’s really no telling where the limit is for Nare.

“He’s a hard worker, for sure,” Hall said. “He’s always there on time, he loves to stay after practice and get some extra shots in. He’s a very positive player on the field — not just in terms of ability, but his attitude as well. We love having him here.”