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How this high school soccer coach brought a divided town together

A high school soccer team from a town in Maine has become a powerhouse by getting players from different countries to work together.
/ Source: TODAY

A high school soccer team in Maine is showing people what can be accomplished when players from different cultures put aside their differences and work together.

The town of Lewiston was 96 percent white in 2000, when an influx of about 7,000 immigrants, many of them from Somalia, began arriving at the turn of the century, causing tension within the existing community.

"I think everybody looked at them with kind of a squinty eye," head soccer coach Mike McGraw told Jenna Bush Hager on TODAY Tuesday.

McGraw, a life-long Lewiston resident who has coached the team for 35 seasons, has helped blend the group of newcomers and the existing players into a powerhouse soccer team that has brought pride to the town and sent a message about the importance of teamwork.

The moving story of the Lewiston High School Blue Devils is detailed in a new book released on Tuesday by author Amy Bass called "One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together." Bass is the wife of TODAY's Director of Production Management.

One Goal segment
Author Amy Bass writes about the powerful story of the Lewiston soccer team in her new book. TODAY

"This team plays soccer like Maine had never seen before, but it's more than that,'' Bass told Hager. "It's about a community, it's about their families, it's about refugees around the world. And it's about America sort of figuring out how to live up to the ideals that it writes down on paper on a daily basis."

McGraw saw the addition of immigrant players as a chance to improve the program rather than as a detriment. Many of the players from African countries were raised playing soccer and already had a strong love of the game.

"They're like a rainbow of opportunity because they're all so vastly different,'' he said.

The biggest challenge was melding a cohesive team out of a group of teens who would often separate themselves by racial lines.

One Goal segment
Veteran coach Mike McGraw has helped mold players of different backgrounds into one of Maine's top programs. TODAY

"I knew that if I could get them to blend their skills and blend their intensity and blend the things that they do really well, I knew that we were gonna have success,'' he said.

"He would just be like, 'You know, you guys gotta do it together. You do this together. When we run, you do it together,''' said team member Mohamed Khalid, who began playing soccer as a boy in Kenya.

Lewiston emerged as a power by reaching the regional title game in 2012 and 2013 and then winning it in 2014, before they took it to another level a year later.

The Blue Devils won the Class A state championship in 2015, finishing 18-0 and ranked in the top 25 in the nation with a team featuring players from six different countries.

One Goal segment
The Blue Devils have celebrated two state championships in the last three seasons. TODAY

"It was one of the happiest times in my life,'' player Mohamed Khalid told Hager.

"It was a source of pride for everybody,'' Bass said.

Lewiston came back in 2017 and won another Class A title with a 1-0 victory in overtime, but it's been about more than just the results on the field.

"I feel like soccer has helped integrate the city a lot,'' team member Bilal Hersi said.

One Goal segment
The Lewiston soccer team has become a source of pride in a community that has absorbed a large influx of immigrants since 2000. TODAY

"Soccer just brings us all together,'' teammate Jeremy Hepler added.

The Blue Devils have provided a blueprint for success in a community that could have given in to division and tension.

"The one thing that's great about the different cultures is if they actually talk to each other, they find out that they're more similar than they are different,'' McGraw said.

Follow writer Scott Stump and TODAY producer Josh Weiner on Twitter.