Special season for Bonilla-Hernandez brothers and Seneca soccer
Four years after making a 20-day, 3,300-mile trip from Honduras to South Jersey, the siblings have played key roles in the best regular season in the history of the Golden Eagles program.
The most serendipitous thing about the most successful regular season in Seneca boys' soccer history can be traced to a 20-day, 3,300-mile journey that two brothers, 13 and 11, took from Honduras to South Jersey in the summer of 2014.
And to pick-up games the boys have played with cousins, uncles and other grown men on Sunday afternoons in Camden parks.
And to increasingly comfortable conversations about the sport the boys had in common with their guidance counselor, who happened to be the Golden Eagles' soccer coach.
"Really, I just wanted them to get more involved in the school," Seneca coach Sam Maira said of his talks with Owens Bonilla-Hernandez and his younger brother, Elkin Bonilla-Hernandez.
Maira wasn't thinking about this season. He wasn't trying to strengthen his side. He wasn't imagining a scenario in which the brothers would become contributors for a team that is 15-1-3 after suffering its first loss in a 1-0 setback to St. Augustine Prep on Wednesday night in the semifinals of the South Jersey Soccer Coaches Association tournament.
Maira was trying to persuade Owens to play soccer for Seneca mainly because he knew the youngster loved the game and might be able to use the sport to better integrate into the school community despite a language barrier.
"He was a kid who always was wearing a soccer shirt," Maira said. "He had soccer haircuts. We would always talk about the game. He told me he would play on the weekends with his uncles, with family and friends.
"I tried to get him to come out. I thought it would be good for him. But he didn't want to do it."
That went on for three years with Owens, now a senior. When Elkin enrolled at Seneca last year as a freshman, Maira tried the same approach with the younger Bonilla-Hernandez brother, with more success.
"He told me he was going to come out as a sophomore," Maira said. "Sure enough, in the spring, he started with the paperwork."
Maira didn't know what to expect. After all, Elkin is maybe 5-foot-7, maybe 125 pounds at the end of a long game in the rain.
But it quickly became apparent to the coach that his new player would make an impact.
"We're like, 'Wow, this kid can really play,' " Maira said.
As Seneca prepares to enter the South Jersey Group 3 tournament in pursuit of the program's first sectional title, Elkin is second on the team with 10 goals. The sophomore striker also has three assists and displayed an uncanny feel for the game.
"He has amazing awareness," Maira said.
Owens joined the team after the start of the season, inspired by his brother's experience. The older sibling, who has missed some practice time because of a work commitment, has been a steady contributor as a defender and begun to ponder playing the sport in college, perhaps at Rowan College of Burlington County.
The brothers attribute their smooth transition to high school soccer — the Golden Eagles are the first organized team on which either boy has played — to competition with older relatives and other adults in pickup games in parks in Camden.
"High school soccer is better because we can play with the strategy the coach gives us," Owens Bonilla-Hernandez said through a translator. "Playing with family and friends was a little more dangerous because they were stronger than us. We had to learn to be more skillful."
Maira said the brothers have a "soccer brain" that is the product of playing the game with older, more seasoned competitors.
"We always tell our players, 'Watch the older guys,' " Maira said. "They don't have your speed or endurance, but they have that soccer brain. That's what Owens and Elkin have."
Seneca senior Mitch Tippin raves about the "composure" the brothers display with the ball.
"You can just tell how well they understand the game," Tippin said.
Another Seneca senior, Zach Brida, has grown close with Elkin since the team's summer scrimmage at Toms River South included a visit to Seaside Heights.
"Elkin kept asking me, 'Zach, when are we going to the boardwalk?' " Brida said. "I told him we had to go to the beach first."
Said Maira: "That's when Zach threw Elkin in the water."
Owens said playing soccer for Seneca has helped the brothers make more friends and feel more comfortable and confident in school.
"It makes us feel good. We feel loved and remembered because of the way we play," Owens said.
The Bonilla-Hernandez brothers arrived in South Jersey on July 4, 2014. They made the trip from their hometown of El Progreso in Honduras to South Jersey in the company of an older cousin.
Owens said the brothers rode in a vehicle for some of the trip through Guatemala and Mexico but also walked at times. They left their home to reunite with their mother, Lesly Hernandez, who was living with relatives in Southampton.
"We were sad to leave family and friends but happy to be with our mother," Owens said.
Maira said that while Elkin and Owens have made a difference on the soccer field, his original goal has been met as well as the brothers have become more "immersed" in the school community.
"Our program philosophy is 'Boys to Men,' " Maira said. "We all have a story. High school can be such an insecure time. I know when I was in high school, if I didn't have soccer, I don't know if I would have been able to hold my head up.
"That's really all I wanted for these guys was to get more immersed in the school, to feel part of the team, to become more part of the school. They've done that. Everybody loves these two guys. That's been the best part of this."