- Associated Press - Monday, June 9, 2014

LAKE CHARLES, La. (AP) - A little hustle on the soccer field led Joseph Lapira to his dream college, a professional career, and world travel.

Lapira, who helped St. Louis High School win two state championships before becoming the 2006 NCAA player of the year at Notre Dame, moved back to Lake Charles in the past year after several years playing abroad. Now he wants to help home-town players.

The international adventure started with a hopeful e-mail to Bobby Clark, coach at Notre Dame - a school that Lapira’s godfather, an uncle and some cousins had attended. “I always wanted a chance to go to Notre Dame,” Lapira said.

During a visit to his cousin there, Clark invited him to a game. “He sat us down afterwards and told us it was hard to get into there. They had a lot of good players coming there. He explained the recruiting process to me. From there, I started sending out letters and didn’t get many responses.

“I wanted to play, even if it was at a smaller school. Clark told me to come to their summer camp if I had a chance.”

When he was a junior, his club team won the state tournament and made regional semifinals, Lapira said.

A Notre Dame assistant watched that semifinal, Lapira said. “I went to their camp a few weeks after that. I’m a pretty happy-go-lucky guy: I guess they liked my attitude and figured I would be a good guy for the locker room.”

Lapira earned a little playing time right away and, as a junior, was NCAA player of the year.

“I wasn’t doing too much,” he said. “I just got near the goal and tapped them in. My teammates did all the work getting it there.”

During that time, Lapira, whose mother is from Ireland, got to play in the Irish national team.

“They had called me right after my junior season of college, in January, but that was right after I had surgery on my right knee,” he said.

“Some journalist from a Dublin newspaper had written a big spread on me, then I started getting calls about if I had gotten an Irish passport yet. They told me they were coming to the States that summer and asked if I wanted to train with them. I got to train with them in New York for a week. We played Ecuador in Giants Stadium in front of 20,000 people.”

The coach was Steve Staunton, whom Lapira had watched in the 1994 World Cup. “I didn’t think there was any chance I would get to play. I played five or ten minutes and touched the ball a couple of times,” Lapira said.

After his senior season, Lapira left school to play professionally in Norway for Nybergsund IL-Trysil. Toronto’s Major League Soccer team drafted him, “but I had told them that I was going to Europe. I figured I had a couple of years to have some fun, make some money and live in some cool places.”

His team’s headquarters were near a ski resort where Lapira lived for three years. “The town had about 500 people and the resort about 2000. I made friends with the fans there, talked to them. I was voted fans’ player of the year. The fan club president was one of my best friends. I still talk to him.”

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