s the college coaches watched the National Association of Christian Athletes High School soccer tournament last fall, they marveled at the Life Center Academy star that was in the midst of scoring a tournament record 13 goals en route to the tournament's Most Valuable Player honors.
But their excitement quickly turned to disappointment. Not only had the 6-foot-2 player already signed with a college, he wasn't even playing soccer.
Mike Lasme who has led the Penn-New Jersey League in scoring the last two years since arriving in the United States from Mali, via France, is playing basketball and will be at the University of Massachusetts next season.
His basketball ability matches up pretty comparably with his soccer skills. His 25 points-per-game scoring average and an impressive vertical leap that's been listed at as high as 45-inches have Lasme universally ranked among the top 100 high school seniors and top 15 senior point guards nationally.
Lasme committed to UMass in July, rejecting the overtures of NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeds Maryland and Cincinnati. Lasme had second thoughts in late September and withdrew his commitment when he first realized UMass wasn't in the urban environment that he was used to. But he changed his mind shortly after recommitted to the Minutemen in early October.
"I grew up in a city and I thought UMass was more in a city," Lasme said at the time. "But I want to play for (UMass coach Steve) Lappas. He's recruited me and we have a great relationship. He trusts me. He trusts my game. I think he'll give me a chance to play. It's all about feeling comfortable."
He signed a National Letter of Intent in November and has had no second thoughts.
"I talk to coach almost everyday," Lasme said. "We have a good relationship and I want to know more about what they're doing and how the point guard is playing."
Lappas said Lasme can play either guard spot and offers a dimension the team lacked this year at times.
"He's a very, very athletic kid," Lappas said. "He's a very, very good scorer. He's going to be a nice addition to the program.
"He's a real good shooter," Lappas continued. "He jumps through the roof. He has long arms. He's strong. He has a lot of talent. He hasn't been playing that long in this country so he has a lot to learn, but he's great kid. He works hard. He wants to learn and he will because he has a lot of talent."
A native of Abidjan, Ivory Coast in Africa, Lasme moved to France when he was 12 and has been in the Unites States for the past two years.
Lasme thinks being away from home for as long as he has, will make him more prepared for college life.
"I've always been far away,' he said. "I know how to handle myself already. I lost my dad when I was young so I was always by myself."
Lasme won't be the Minutemen's only African player as Alassane Kouyate, a big man from Mali, also signed with UMass.
"I hope he's going to be my roommate," Lasme said. "I e-mail him a lot. He's a nice guy."
With his college choice out of the way early, Lasme spent the year preparing for college.
"It's been great. I've improved. It's been a good year for me," he said. "No pressure. I know where I'm going I know who I'm going to play for. I just have to work on my game. I can shoot now. But I'm trying to get better on my shot. I'm quick but I'm trying to get quicker."
Lasme, who attended UMass' games at Temple and Saint Joseph's, tried to follow the Minutemen on TV this year to watch their systems on offense and defense to be better prepared.
"I try to watch what they're doing and learn already," Lasme said. "I try to see the level on the game so I know what to practice on."
Lasme is planning on spending the summer in Amherst.
"I was going to go home, but I want to stay and work on my game because I don't want to mess up my first year," he said. "I want to do good, real good."
Academically, he's already eligible to play as a freshman with a 3.7 grade point average and SAT's just below 1000.
"I have a 3.7. I'm trying to get a four-point," he said.
Lasme, who speaks three languages - French Spanish and English - said he plans on majoring in communications. But despite his academic prowess so far, he isn't making plans yet on how he'll use his degree someday.
"Truthfully I think about going pro. I'm going to work for that," he said. "So I don't think about using communication and stuff like that. If it happens that I can't make it then I'm going to try to get a job with it."
lassane Kouyate smiles a lot. His wide, warm flash of teeth can put anyone in his presence instantly at ease. It is a big part of what has made the Bamako, Mali native so popular at Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio's Walsh Jesuit High School.
But that ever present grin hides a lot about the 6-foot-9 big man who will play basketball at the University of Massachusetts next year. It masks some sadness from his youth and a steely determination to successful on and off the basketball court.
Coming to America
Kouyate's interest in coming to the United States came from a friend.
"I was 15. There was a guy who played basketball with me that came here earlier," Kouyate said. "He was two or three years older than I am. I looked up to him."
That player was Mohamed Diakite, who ended up at St. John's after playing at Montrose Christian in Maryland.
Kouyate followed his lead. Using an international agency that helps international students find American host families, Kouyate moved in with Bob and Becky Kelly in suburban Cleveland. The Kellys have hosted several foreign students including Aly Samabaly, who was a freshman forward at Duquesne this year.
His initial culture shock was difficult. Kouyate speaks five languages, but English wasn't one of them when he arrived.
"The first month of school I was like 'What the heck is going on.' I was totally lost," he said using excellent English through a strong, but not prohibitive, accent. "I felt so dumb. People would ask me a question and I'd say 'What?' and feel so stupid."
"Now like I think in English, 60 or 70 percent. When people ask me stuff, I can respond right away," Kouyate continued. "At first I had to translate in my head into French. At first it was hard. I was like the worst student."
But as his English improved, his academics and popularity amongst his classmates did too.
"He has a very contagious smile He likes to know everybody," Walsh basketball coach Frank Lupica said. "It's nothing to see him show up at a girls basketball game or soccer game to support the other kids. They've seen this genuine affection he has for them. The kids return it. He's very popular."
Kouyate's presence at Walsh Jesuit has allowed the school's other students to learn about both African life and the Muslim religion through him.
"People ask me questions all the time. Because when you say Africa, people think it's all jungle. There are a lot of big cites and little villages and stuff," Kouyate said. "They think there are lions walking around all over the place."
Kouyate relished the opportunity to dispel the misconceptions about his faith shortly after Sept. 11.
"All Muslims are not like that. In the Muslim religion, you're not supposed to kill anybody," he said. "If you kill somebody, you go to hell for sure. It is in the Quaran that nobody is supposed to kill anybody. Only God has the power to kill people. These people say "Oh, we're doing it for God." They're wrong. They're totally wrong."
Longing for home
While Kouyate has enjoyed being in the United States, he still often longs for home. His father died last year of a cerebral hemorrhage and by the time he got home to grieve with his family, he missed the funeral.
That made him more determined to be successful academically to get the chance to help his mother and five siblings.
"Becky and Bob told a story a year ago that he received money for a Christmas present and he went to the mall and ended up buying all these shoes," Lupica said. "Bob and Becky were a little dismayed that he came home with a couple bags of shoes thinking 'he has enough shoes.' But the shoes were for his family."
"I think about them a lot," Kouyate said. "All my wishes are that I could be with them right now. I want to accomplish what I'm here for with school work and basketball. I need to work on getting better. My life is basketball and school work. If you get a degree from the United States, you can work anywhere in the world."
While Kouyate's height alone made him an instant factor on the court, tendinitis in his knees slowed Kouyate improvement early. This year Lupica said, Kouyate has added some polish to his raw talent base.
"The thing that has surprised me the most is his ability to pass the basketball," Lupica said. "He's very unselfish. There are times that if he took the shot you wouldn't think anything of it. But you're more impressed that he pivots and finds somebody wide open, the other big guy or the backside guard, and he'll get them the ball.
"He has pretty good post moves," Lupica continued. "We're trying to teach him the reverse pivot so he can turn and face without putting the ball on the floor so he has a better read on whether to shoot it or not."
Lupica said Kouyate's enjoyment of the game has helped fuel his improvement.
"He enjoys playing. He's one of the hardest workers in our weight room," Lupica said. "We usually pair the kids up. If you're paired with Alassane, it's going to be a long 45 minutes because he's is going to work very hard."
Kouyate started getting recruiting attention last summer and was invited to the prestigious ABCD all-star camp that attracts nearly all of the nation's Division I coaches and played well enough to garner attention from quite a few onlookers including UMass' Steve Lappas.
In addition to the Minutemen, Kouyate was recruited by several Midwest schools, but his final choices came down to UMass and Duquesne, where Samabaly was playing as a freshman.
"It was very tough," Kouyate said of his decision. "I would love to play on the same team as Aly and he would love for me to go to Duquesne, but he kept on saying 'Alassane, wherever you go you're my brother, I support you, but I would like you to come to Duquesne. But if you don't feel like that's the right fit for you, don't sign.'
Sometimes I felt I should go to Duquesne, but I wanted to go to UMass," Kouyate added. "I wish Aly was at UMass. It was tough, but I feel really good about UMass."
Lappas feels good about Kouyate, too, and believes his work ethic would help him adjust quickly.
"He's a warrior. He can shoot the ball from 15 feet which helps in our style, but he can post up also," Lappas said. "He's a tough kid and he goes in there and battles. He plays hard. You can't substitute for that. If you play hard, you can learn on the job."
When Kouyate leaves for college, Lupica is going to miss having him around.
"He's a breath of fresh air as a human being. He's the type of person that you would like to be friends with," Lupica said. "I'd like to think for him we've given him more than just basketball. If that's all he gets from being in our building, we've failed as a school."
He needn't worry.
"I like this school. It's hard but I think it's helped me get ready for college," Kouyate said smiling.
tephen Briggs had decided to attend the University of Massachusetts even before his recruiting visit, but his visit to Amherst cemented his decision.
Recruiting services list the 6-foot-9, 220-pound big man's hometown as Houston, Texas and they're not entirely wrong. Briggs emerged as a top recruit playing high school and AAU in the Lone Star State's largest city. But Briggs thinks of another spot as home.
"I'm originally from Berkeley, Calif.," he said. "Amherst reminded me of Berkeley. I liked it. It was really laid back."
Briggs liked UMass coach Steve Lappas and committed to the Minutemen over Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Texas in early August and planned his official visit to the campus for Midnight Madness in mid-October.
"One of my history teachers is a UMass graduate and he showed me a lot of pictures of UMass in the fall," Briggs said. "He told me I should try to visit then."
For him the real thing lived up to the photograph.
"UMass had me hooked before I got there. After I left my visit I was hooked even more," Briggs said. "It was really a beautiful area in the fall. The players were great. By the end of my trip they were calling my parents Mom and Pop."
Briggs saw UMass as more than just a nice place to live though. It had an opportunity to play right away. With Kitwana Rhymer, Eric Williams and Ronell Blizzard all gone from this year's squad, there is playing time to be had in the front court.
Briggs will be competing with fellow freshman Alassane Kouyate, sophomore rookie Gabriel Lee and seniors Micah Brand and Jackie Rogers.
"That was definitely a factor," Briggs said. "Everybody wants to come in and play. Nobody wants to sit the bench."
Lappas was excited at what Briggs could bring.
"He's a tough kid. He can shoot the ball well for his size," Lappas said. "We think he's going to be a good player."
Mike Sullivan, a recruiting analyst for RivalsHoops.com, praised Briggs.
"His upside is pretty big," Sullivan said on RivalsHoops.com. "Briggs is willing to play physical and challenge shots, and his offensive game is still developing. He has a sweet touch from the outside and can explode off his feet."
Briggs averaged 18 points and nine rebounds as a senior.
Briggs' 3.5 GPA is well over the necessary level to be eligible as a freshman, but he still needs to achieve a qualifying standardized test score to be eligible. But he said his scores were close. He took the SATs again last Saturday.
If he passes, he'll be eligible to enroll in summer school to get a head start on class.
"I'm excited," he said. "I can't wait to get there."