By Jeremy Stafford - email@example.com
STRASBURG -- For Nika Kartvelishvili, the thought of making a trip to the United States resided in the furthest recesses of his mind.
Playing organized soccer for a small high school in rural Virginia, then, took residence in those same recesses.
But on July 24, Kartvelishvili arrived in Strasburg, having hopped over the Atlantic Ocean from his native country of Georgia.
As a foreign exchange student, Kartvelishvili will spend his entire senior year attending Strasburg High School, and will return to Georgia this summer.
Said Kartvelishvili, in a heavy voice dripping with a Slovakian accent: "I never thought that I could come to the U.S.A., and it happened -- it's cool."
And it's expectedly different.
In Georgia, Kartvelishvili played soccer "just for fun" on any one of a hundred tiny soccer fields scattered throughout the country. Until this spring, he had never played organized soccer, never played under a coach, and never ran in a standard formation.
But he trained as though he had.
Each Georgian morning comprised the same routine of lifting and running. When there was time, he juggled a soccer ball or played in a game of pick-up.
Kartvelishvili also wrestled in Georgia, giving him a solid, stocky body, more reminiscent of a burly linebacker than a fleet forward.
To become a foreign exchange student in the United States, Kartvelishvili, along with 3,000 other Georgians, had to endure a series of standard examinations.
Of those 3,000 Georgians who tested, only nine passed, Kartvelishvili being one of them.
The next week he took a second exam, and passed. He took the final exam a month later. When his scores came back after five months, he was told to prepare for a flight to America.
Though Kartvelishvili had taken four years of English in Georgia, his speech was more cacophonous than fluent.
"I knew grammar and words and stuff," Kartvelishvili chuckled. "But when I came here, I knew just 'hi' 'bye' 'what's you're name?', 'how are you doing?', and stuff.
"I could not talk, but I'm doing well."
Kartvelishvili adjusted so well, in fact, that within his first month at Strasburg he was well on his way to lettering in football.
Juggling a soccer ball in his physical education class, Kartvelishvili was approached by Strasburg football coach Mark Roller. Roller wanted Kartvelishvili to kick an American football.
Kartvelishvili was bewildered -- he'd never before seen a football, so he asked to see what it was shaped like.
Roller showed him a football, and Kartvelishvili kicked it through a set of uprights.
In a partial season of football, Kartvelishvili converted all five of his extra point attempts, and made one of two field goal attempts.
While the Rams football team used Kartvelishvili to cap off touchdowns, Kartvelishvili used the Rams football team to insert himself into Strasburg's social circles.
"He's a great guy just to have around," Strasburg senior Brian Huttner said. "He's not shy or anything, like you would think some foreign exchange students might be.
"He's just like all of us, cracking jokes and stuff."
And the more juggling shows Kartvelishvili put on in his P.E. class, the more his classmates ogled over his talents.
Soon word got to Huttner and the soccer team that a foreign exchange student in Roller's P.E. class could manipulate a soccer ball like few at Strasburg could.
Coming off a 5-12 campaign in 2009, and two years removed from a winless season, members of the Rams soccer team joked that Kartvelishvili must have played professional soccer in Georgia.
Kartvelishvili was quick to correct them: "I was like, 'No, man, I don't play soccer -- it's just for fun!"
But having played in only two of Strasburg's four matches this season -- Kartvelishvili missed two games because of committals with the foreign exchange program -- the Georgian has already notched two goals.
Jordan Bowes leads Strasburg (3-1) with three goals, while Dean Shuck and Juan Sanmartin -- another foreign exchange student -- are tied with Kartvelishvili with two goals.
With so many scorers this season, first-year Rams coach Joel Ross has pointed out that Strasburg doesn't depend on Kartvelishvili's shiftiness to score goals -- already Strasburg's 10 goals matches its offensive production for the entire 2008 season.
But Ross also agrees it's beneficial having the trigger-happy Kartvelishvili bouncing like a pin ball at the top of the pitch.
"It's possible that Nika will end up being the biggest goal-scorer," Ross said. "He ended up shooting the ball the most during the games that he played
"Part of that's also the way that he plays. He's got a very strong foot."
That foot was on display March 19 in a 6-2 loss to Stonewall Jackson. Not a minute into the match, Kartvelishvili blared a 35-yard shot through the crown of the goalmouth.
And though Stonewall Jackson eventually bested the Rams, Ross said the loss speaks more to Strasburg's progression over last season than any of its wins.
"Our record is not really reflective of anything yet," Ross said. "We've beaten Page [County] and Luray, and we beat them last year. We haven't beaten anybody that we haven't beaten before.
"Our record is only reflective of our schedule at this point."
The Rams travel to Quicksburg at 7 p.m. this evening to get their second crack at a Generals team that boasts a five-match winning streak over Strasburg.
Huttner said that the addition of Ross, players like Kartvelishvili and Sanmartin, and even Strasburg's new uniforms, bring a fresh flavor to this season, eradicating the bitterness of the past two seasons.
Kartvelishvili just wants to show that, even in his first season of organized soccer, he and the Rams have the talent to compete with some of the top programs in the state.
"That was kind of a tough game," he said of the loss to Stonewall Jackson. "Stonewall has a good team -- I mean good.
"I'd love to be like that."