A long way from home, NU midfielder right at home

Native of Lesotho, Seetane helps lead Wildcats into third round of NCAA soccer tournament

Lepe Seetane, midfielder for the Northwestern Men's soccer team, discusses the transition from his homeland of Lesotho, Africa to the United States.

For three starters on the Northwestern men's soccer team — Kyle Schickel, Layth Masri and Lepe Seetane, former standouts at three Louisville high schools — the Wildcats' Sunday night NCAA tournament match at Louisville is a homecoming.

For Seetane, home is a lot farther away, a place he has not been since returning for his father's funeral in 2009, a place he left for an unexpected opportunity seized with a determination and vision evident as soon as he came to Louisville from Lesotho at 14.

"I wasn't frightened of leaving home. I was eager to learn the different dynamics of the world," Seetane said last week.

Marc Maguire, the Louisville car dealer whose family took in Seetane and another player from Lesotho, Sunny Jane, said the Northwestern junior spoke with a similar level of insight from the moment he arrived in his home away from home.

"Lepe always has been very mature and very responsible," Maguire said. "He and Sunny were 'Just Add Water' kids. I would come home and find them doing the dishes or cleaning the whole house. They were absolutely perfect."

The Maguires became adoptive parents to Seetane, Jane and two other high school soccer players from Lesotho living with them now. Seetane's mother, Malepekola, and his 18-year-old brother, Masilo, still live in his hometown, Maseru, capital of Lesotho.

"People ask me, 'Which parent do you rely on?' " Seetane said. "It's 50-50. I call either the Maguires or my mother for support and advice. I am blessed to have both."

His mother encouraged him to grab the chance that developed from an unlikely set of connections. The Maguires started as part of the connections and became much more to Seetane and Jane, who plays for Maryland. Their teams will meet in the semifinals if both win third-round matches Sunday.

The back story: Thabane Sutu, a former goalie and captain of Lesotho's national team, is a coach for the Louisville club team on which Maguire's sons played. Sutu knew of some talented young players in Lesotho who would benefit from coming to the United States.

Like most Americans, Maguire knew absolutely nothing about the country and had no idea where it is. Even at a worldly university such as Northwestern, Seetane finds himself avoiding complicated explanations by saying Lesotho is inside South Africa.

The Kingdom of Lesotho, independent of Britain since 1966, is a country of 2.2 million surrounded by South Africa with 80 percent of its landmass above 5,700 feet. It is among the world's poorest countries, with a per-capita annual income under $1,100, and in the midst of a food crisis after drought ravaged the nation again this year.

"I was blessed to live in the city in a working-class family," Seetane said. "My childhood was phenomenal. Coming here and seeing the difference was mind-blowing, even though I knew I was well-off in Lesotho."

Seetane's father, Khausi, worked in South African mines, returning home monthly. During those visits, he coached a neighborhood soccer team and taught his sons to play.

"It was more like street soccer," Seetane said. "You could do whatever you felt like, be creative instead of having well-organized, structured practices like the United States."

Seetane, tiny and baby-faced (still just 5-foot-2), had an edge in creativity when he started playing for Louisville's Trinity High School and the United 1996 club team. You could see those skills in the sleight-of-foot Seetane used to beat a defender before scoring the Wildcats' second goal in a 2-1 upset of Notre Dame this season.

"When we saw him at the club level, Lepe mixed that creativity with the maturity of knowing how to get other players involved," Northwestern coach Tim Lenahan said. "So many really good players at that age just dribble all the time."

Lenahan never worried that Seetane's height would be a drawback in college.

"You have Muggsy Bogues (at 5-3, shortest to play in the NBA) and many other analogies," Lenahan said. "If you are that size, you have to have incredible quickness. Lepe does — and he is also very strong."

The midfielder's strength is not only physical. Maguire remembers how Seetane's resolve about remaining in the United States never flagged, even during the trip home after his father's death.

"I always was going to come back to continue my education and continue to grow as a human being," said Seetane, a political science major.

Seetane hopes to find a way for his mother to get to Northwestern for his June 2014 graduation. For her, the 85 miles from Maseru to Bloemfontein, South Africa, is a major trip.

"The thing I like best about Lepe is his daily appreciation of the opportunity he was given," Lenahan said.

Home or away.

Or, in Seetane's case, home and home.

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil

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