With players from all over the world, USM soccer hopes to raise cancer awareness

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WLOX) - It's been a full decade since Southern Miss soccer has had a winning season. In 2003, the Golden Eagles went 9-7-3. Since then, they've picked up 41 wins, 108 losses and 11 ties.

But this year, with a new coach, attitude and confidence, a little international spark is also hoping to push Southern Miss to the top.

"Originally I'm from Egypt but this is home," first-year head coach Mohammed El-Zare said. "I'm an American citizen. I'm used to the coast area and Mississippi. It's home for me. It's a natural point of destination to be here at Southern Miss."

Southern Miss features one player from England and three from Canada. Senior forward Danica Roberts (pronounced duh-NEE-kuh), who is a huge fan of Manchester United, is from a town called Liversedge, which is about 3.5 hours northwest of London.

The Englishwoman led all junior college scorers in Mississippi during both her years at Jones County Junior College. She tallied 19 goals and six assists as a freshman with 29 goals and nine assists as a sophomore.

"It was definitely a little bit of a culture shock," Roberts said. "Dolores Deasley made my time amazing there. We were like a family."

Senior midfielder Natasha Lombardo, freshman goalkeeper Brittany Taylor and junior defender Tara Nay are from the province of Alberta in Canada. Lombardo and Taylor are from Calgary, while Nay's hometown is Sherwood Park.

Assistant coach Betty Casey spent some time in Canada as well.

One thing that will bring this soccer family even closer is what's happened in the personal lives of Taylor and Lombardo. Both are good friends with Troy soccer player Kailani Decock, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in June.

El-Zare announced that Southern Miss will designate a specific game this season to raise money for cancer research and awareness. That date is still to be determined.

"I found out that my best friend that I've played with since I've been like 12 [has cancer]," Lombardo said. "She got diagnosed with cancer and she's 20 years old. So the past couple weeks to a month have been pretty rough when it comes to cancer.

"I just think we need to be more aware and do as much as we can to help it. Whether it's raising money or just awareness."

In the past few months, it's been even more traumatizing for Lombardo. Her family has been struggling with cancer as well.

"I lost my grandpa a couple months ago and my aunt got diagnosed with cancer last year," Lombardo said. "[The doctors] thought they cured my aunt's cancer and it went away. But we just found out a couple weeks ago that it came back and it's terminal cancer. It's not looking very good."

"I'm just wishing them the best," Roberts said. "[I hope] the family members that are ill hopefully try to get through it the best they can."

Freshman midfielder/defender Devin McGee is one of five players for Southern Miss who have ties to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. That community is known for its strong family feelings, so McGee is doing everything she can to support her teammates.

"Natasha looks to us for support," McGee said. "Not only do we show it to her in the locker room, but by also giving her a hug and telling her good job at practice. We have to show it on the field when we play and win for her and her family."

"My getaway is soccer," Lombardo said. "That's how I deal with things. That's how I've coped with things since I was little. I go out there and I forget about everything. Coming here, this school, every girl here, Coach Mo, everyone has been more supportive than I've ever had. We have the best team. I can honestly say with all my heart we are very lucky to have each other. I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for them."