By Steve Gunn

NORTON SHORES – Lulo Mafahla likes the United States a lot.

So much so, in fact, that he’s currently in his fourth year as a high school exchange student from South Africa.

Lulo Mafahla

He spent his freshman year at a school in Chicago, then decided to come to this area and transfer to Western Michigan Christian High School, because he has family in Grand Rapids, as had friends from back home who were attending the school.

He’s in his third happy year of living with his host parents, Clifford and Stephanie Smith, and will get his diploma from WMC in the spring. 

He’s also a pretty important soccer player for WMC, even though it was never his plan to play for the school’s soccer team.

“I wanted to be closer to my sister, who is a student at Cornerstone University,” Mafahla said about coming to West Michigan. “I also knew a couple friends who came here from home.

“Most (exchange) students are only allowed to stay for a year, but luckily for me my country allows you to stay the whole time for high school.”

Mafahla grew up playing soccer in South Africa, like most kids there do, and was pretty good at it. But when he came to the U.S. he wanted to broaden his horizons and try something different, so he went out for football as a sophomore.

WMC doesn’t have a football team, but it does have a co-op agreement with Muskegon Catholic Central, so Mafahla became an MCC Crusader on the gridiron.

He was not eligible to play as a sophomore, but worked out with the team all fall. Last year he became eligible, and earned a spot as a starter in the defensive backfield for the Crusaders.

He said he loved every moment of American football.

“My junior year I was fortunate enough to be a starter,” he said. “I was a defensive cornerback and safety, and I did punt returning and kickoff returning, and was second-string as a wide receiver.

Mafahla dribbles around Whitehall defense earlier this season. Photo/Randy Riksen

“I loved it. I loved the physicality, being able to get your stress out and being able to hit someone without legal consequences.”

Mafahla had every intention of playing football again this season, and reported to preseason practice with MCC, but the the season was called off on Aug. 15, so he naturally ventured over to the WMC soccer team.

He had already worked out with the soccer team over the summer just for fun, and had demonstrated some unique skills. He was more than happy to join the team when he thought football had been moved to next spring.

Of course the state reinstated high school football on Sept.4, and Mafahla suddenly had a decision to make. It was a hard choice, but he finally decided to stay at his home school and play a season of soccer.

“I had already invested a lot of time (with the WMC soccer team), and I wanted to try something new and have fun my senior year,” he said.

“I love it. It’s probably been my best year of high school so far. In football, I barely had a chance to meet the people I played with – just at games and practice. In soccer I play with guys I go to school with every day.”

The switch has worked out very well for Mafahla and his team.

Lulo Mafahla controls the ball for the Warriors earlier this season. Photo/Randy Riksen

He came to the Warriors at the perfect time, because they won the Division 4 state championship last fall, but lost a ton of players to graduation. The younger players who took over this fall were skilled but largely inexperienced, and Mafahla gave them an extra scoring presence up front.

He currently has 10 goals and seven assists. He scored two very big goals last week in the Warriors’ 2-1 victory over a tough North Muskegon squad in the Division 4 district championship game, and will play a big role as they head into regionals and try to defend their state title.

“I grew up playing soccer, but I hadn’t played competitively in four years,” he said. “I’m kind of surprised (about how well he’s done), but I still have a lot to do. I hold myself accountable for a lot of things.”

WMC first-year Coach Ben Buursma, who only inherited three starters from last year’s title team, is very happy to have Mafahla on the soccer roster.

“He showed up for drop-ins over the summer, and it was exciting to see him out,” Buursma said. “Even at that point he was one of the better players on the field. I was excited to see him out and I was hoping he would choose soccer this year.

“He gives us a nice, physical, creative presence in the midfield. He’s very skilled with the ball at his feet, and very good at taking defenders on one-on-one. He has a nice strong shot and is also very good with his head.”

Mafahla and the Warriors are happy to have another district championship, but they will have their work cut out for them the rest of the way in the state tournament.

Mafahla returns a punt last season for the Crusaders. Photo/Tim Reilly

One big challenge will come Tuesday night in Mount Pleasant, when they play familiar foe Leland in the first round of Division 3 regionals. The Warriors lost to Leland 3-0 earlier in the season, but they feel like they have become a better team since then.

“They are a tough team, but I think we’ve grown up as a team and connected more with each other,” Mafahla said. “We talk more and we just came together more. I think it’s going to be a real good game on Tuesday.”

After the school year, Mafahla will almost certainly make his way back home to visit his family in Mthathah, South Africa. By then it will be two years since he last saw them, because his visit home last summer had to be cancelled due to COVID.

“That was very hard,” he said about missing his annual visit. “We had a lot planned, but we had to adjust. I miss them a lot. I probably call them four times a week. Luckily for me, my sister is close by. If I feel homesick I can go visit her and my nephew.”

When his next visit home is over, however, Mafahla plans on coming back to the U.S. for college, hopefully on some sort of soccer scholarship.

“I love it here,” he said. ”I just love the people. Everyone is very nice. They are always smiling. I don’t really like the weather, though. It’s kind of cold here.”