BURBANK — Talk about a shot in the arm.
What Mark Gniadek got was more like an adrenaline surge hard to fully classify.
How else to describe his emotional range when his former player, Rafal Slomba, made two earth-shattering announcements?
The first was he was leaving his job at Richards to take over the head coaching job at Downers Grove North.
The off-the-charts part for Reavis soccer came moments later.
“Ahmed is moving to Burbank.”
One of the most electrifying players in the state, Ahmed Dhalai registered a school-record 67 goals in three years at Richards.
He earned Chicagoland Soccer All-State recognition after scoring 35 goals and adding nine assists for the Class AA sectional qualifier in a junior season that included Player of the Year recognition from both the Daily Southtown and the South Suburban Conference Red Division.
“Everybody in the southwest suburbs knew that he was a special player,” Gniadek said.
Dhalai made a spectacular debut at his new school with four goals and an assist in the Rams 7-0 victory over Curie in the first-round game of Reavis’ Windy City Ram Classic on Monday.
The Rams (1-0-0) advanced to the Round of 16 in the championship bracket. Those games were shifted to Friday from the original Thursday date due the extreme heat forecast.
The 15-remaining first round games are set for Tuesday (August 22). The Rams will play the winner of the Plainfield South and Lincoln-Way East match, which is slated for 5:30 p.m. at Reavis.
The hosts put the game away with a three-goal explosion during a frenetic three-minute stretch early in the first half.
Dhalai made his impact immediate and profound, creating a beautiful touch-and-go sequence with junior midfielder Diego Ochoa, who finished from 12 yards from the right wing in the seventh minute.
“I just feel like every time I get on the field, I just give it my all,” Dhalai said. “Every time I get it, I know I am going to score.
“I know even if miss one or two, there are always going to be other chances.”
Last season, Reavis started the tournament with three-consecutive wins to reach the quarterfinals. The team went just 3-11-2 after the strong start. During the stretch the Rams were shut out nine times and scored just 13 goals.
“We lost a lot of close games, where we controlled possession and dominated the game, and we’d lose 1-0,” Gniadek said. “We just couldn’t finish, and now we have a special finisher.”
Midfielder Ochoa was another bright spot for the Rams. His blend of quickness, touch and creativity earned him Chicagoland Soccer All-State Watch List recognition a season ago. He finished with a goal and assist.
“Ochoa is going to be even more dangerous now, because he is going to have a lot of space,” Gniadek said.
The junior recognized immediately the dramatic repercussions of his new teammate.
“Obviously we were ecstatic when we found out about Ahmed,” Ochoa said. “Last year, looking at our record, we were decent, but we didn’t meet expectations.
“We had attacking problems last year, and now we have Ahmed. You just saw today that we had so much energy (after) the first goal, and then the second goal.”
Dhalai scored his first goal with the Rams off a beautiful ball from midfielder Diovanni Perez in the ninth minute. He blasted home the shot from about 11 yards.
Seconds later forward Diego Corona broke free and finished a breakaway from about seven yards, and the Rams led 3-0 and were off to the races.
Dhalai felt he had a good grasp of the soccer program he joined.
“Reavis was in our conference when I was at Richards,” he said. “I knew about them, and I knew they had a good soccer team, with good players and good coaches.
“I had other friends from there, and they told me good things about the school. When my family told me we were moving, I thought I’d just give it a shot.”
His transition has been fluid and adaptive, enabling him to make connections on the field and have a strong rapport with his new teammates.
“I was able to come in, and play with them some games during the summer, and we had some practices,” Dhalai said.
“There are differences in how we play in club, or how we played at Richards, but I told the guys that I’d be checking with the ball and making these runs. Keep listening to what I say.”
Three goals in the first nine minutes told the tale.
“You always get that early momentum when you score, and there are always two mindsets,” Ochoa said. “You can either shut down, or you can keep going harder.
“Luckily we didn’t get scored on in this game.”
The game was not just the new beginning for Dhalai, it also marked the boys’ debut of Curie coach Nenad Bjelicic.
He coached the girls’ program during the spring. It was a trial by fire.
“I think we just got off to a slow start, and then I feel like we picked it up in the second half,” Bjelicic said.
“We are a very young team, and I feel like we have a lot to improve on. Coming in with a new coaching staff, a new style of play, it is going to be a game-changer.”
Reavis ended its first half scoring when midfielder Galileo Figueroa extended the lead to 4-0 in the 32nd minute with a hard rocket from 12 yards on the right wing.
The second half belonged to Dhalai, who put on a display with the final three goals.
Junior Bart Obrochta, who finished with four saves, contributed the rare keeper assist with a long ball that Dhalai chased down and finished for the final goal.
Dhalai, who earned the Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match honor for his outstanding play, also scored off his own rebound and an assist from Ochoa.
The four goals constituted his second-highest individual-game total. He scored five in a game last year
Born in Yemen, Dhalai arrived in the United States at the age of 10.
The last two summers, he participated in a special national tournament in New York involving the Yemeni diaspora.
He was the leading scorer and named the Most Valuable Player after leading his team to the championship game.
The Windy City Ram Classic is arguably the best first week tournament on the boys’ calendar.
Dhalai played in the tournament the last two years with Richards.
The blind draw format really creates anticipation and buzz.
With seven returning starters and one of the state’s top scorers, Reavis is suddenly a player in its own right.
“This was the first game, and I’d say a really good start,” Dhalai said. “We can’t think about this game today too much.
“We have another game Friday, and we want to qualify for the quarterfinals on Saturday. In a way, I feel like we just want to forget today, and get back to work.”
GK: Orlando Cervantes
D: Eduardo Zacarias
D: Jose Alcala
D: Alexis Perez
D: Jorge Silva
MF: Salvador Perez Jr.
MF: Emilio Meza-Romero
MF: Giovanne Arteaga
MF: Saul Moreno
F: Jesus Nunez
F: Erick Flores
GK: Bart Obrochta
D: Frank Wojtanek
D: Rafael Grajeda
D: Kristian Paluch
D: Dante Meza
MF: Galileo Figueroa
MF: Nikolas Lara
MF: Diego Ochoa
MF: Diovanni Perez
F: Ahmed Dhalai
F: Diego Fuentes
Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match: Ahmed Dhalai, sr., F, Reavis
Reavis: Diego Ochoa (Ahmed Dhalai), 7’
Reavis: Dhalai (Diovanni Perez), 9’
Reavis: Diego Corona (unassisted), 9’
Reavis: Galileo Figueroa (Nikolas Lara), 32’
Reavis: Dhalai (Ochoa), 42’
Reavis: Dhalai (unassisted), 49’
Reavis: Dhalai (Bart Obrochta), 54’