COLUMBIA — One number stands out when looking at the 2011 Rock Bridge High School varsity boys soccer roster.
Scanning the numbers under the "class" column reveals plenty of 11s and 12s, but there's one number that doesn't seem to belong: a 10.
Oakville (20-7-1) vs. Rock Bridge (27-3)
WHEN: 6 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Blue Springs South High School
This number sits across from the name of Salim Gumati, the only sophomore to have played exclusively on the varsity squad this season for the Bruins, who play Oakville High School in the Class 3 semifinal Friday.
Gumati’s coaches first saw his potential last year, when he was one of few freshmen who stood out to them.
"We realized he was going to be pretty good and that there was a chance he would be a really special player," Rock Bridge head coach Kyle Austin said.
Austin placed Gumati on junior varsity as a freshman, where he not only showed his talent against other junior varsity teams but also against Rock Bridge’s varsity team.
“When we practiced and scrimmaged last year, varsity versus JV, he stood out to me," Austin said. "He was competing right there with our varsity every day.”
Senior midfielder Kory McDonald said he wasn't surprised when he found out Gumati had made varsity.
“I wasn’t really sure if any sophomores were going to be on varsity at the beginning of the year,” McDonald said. “And then he made it, and I wasn’t really surprised because he had a great tryout.”
The juniors and seniors on the Bruins' varsity team were already familiar with one another from years of playing together, which made Gumati an outsider. His serious attitude soon endeared him to teammates, though, McDonald said.
“If you’re younger, you’ve got to gain that respect,” McDonald said. “And now he’s got it.”
Gumati said he felt the effects of being a virtual outsider at the beginning of the season, but not for long.
“I played with a couple of players during the club season, but overall it was a pretty distant relationship,” Gumati said. “But I got to know them really quick once I got onto the team.”
Gumati said he has had to adjust his playing style to fit the team style.
“Early on, he tried to do stuff that he was able to get away with playing against his age group,” Austin said. “He was trying to do things too quickly, his mind was going a thousand frames a minute, and he was trying to do things too fast.”
Many people helped Gumati adjust to the varsity level, he said, but none more so than assistant coach Alex Nichols.
“He’s always had my back, and he’s always helping me and mentoring me and telling me where to be,” Gumati said of Nichols. “He’s just taught me how to play physical.”
Nichols said coming into this season Gumati was already a physical player; he has just helped him learn how to better use his natural ability.
“He brings an aggressive mentality,” Nichols said. “He’s become a lot more dangerous because his intensity and his physicality and skill are just as high as ever, but he just continues to learn how to utilize it more.”
Austin said Gumati makes his biggest gains by working hard every day in practice, particularly when practicing against Rock Bridge junior midfielder Eli Sherman.
“He makes life tough for Eli when he’s out there and makes him earn everything,” Austin said. “So when Eli gets to the games he’s not going against Salim, he’s going against somebody who’s probably not as good as Salim. And it makes life a lot easier for Eli.”
Gumati's in-game play has showed steady improvement as he adjusts to the varsity level.
“He’s had moments of brilliance throughout the season,” Austin said. “At the beginning of the season, there would be one or two we’d see and then he’d have a few mistakes. Lately it’s been seven, eight brilliant moments to one mistake.”
Nichols said if an outsider watched Gumati play, he or she would probably guess he was a senior instead of a sophomore.
“I don’t think any of the seniors or juniors look at him as a sophomore,” Nichols said, adding that coaches don't view him that way, either. “They look at him as a junior or senior because that’s the way he plays, that’s the way he acts.”
So when Gumati enters the game against Oakville, fans will see his grade listed as 10 in their program. His coaches and teammates will know it's just a number.