There are 500 people in the village of Bodwank on the far-west side India — more than 8,000 miles from Indianapolis — who will be anxiously awaiting the result of Saturday’s Class 2A girls soccer state title game between Brebeuf Jesuit and Penn. The only reason they know about Brebeuf, and the only reason they know about soccer, is because they know the team’s star, Shaili Kumar.
Kumar’s father, Ramesh, grew up in Bodwank and came to the United States when he was 14. Bodwank is a traditional place where arranged marriages are the expectation and girls playing sports is a foreign concept.
So when Shaili Kumar visited the village six years ago and began playing cricket, people took notice.
“They were shocked at how athletic she was,” her father said. “Girls don’t mix with boys over there and play cricket, but she didn’t care.”
Kumar was doing what came naturally to her. She first played soccer as a 4-year old and was playing club by 7. Now she is the leading scorer for one of the best soccer teams in the state.
Kumar scored eight goals as a sophomore, 17 last season and has netted 28 so far this year.
“It’s the dedication I put into it, especially in the offseason,” she said. “All of my training and practicing is starting to pay off.”
Last winter, Kumar looked outside and saw seven inches of snow on the ground. She went outside anyway — to do sprints.
“I was more worried about her coming down with the flu than her doing sprints in the snow, but that is just how driven she is,” her mother, Vaneeta, said.
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Kumar has played the equivalent of 16 full games for the Braves this season.
“She’s the kind of person that wants to play every minute of every game,” said Brebeuf coach Angela Berry-White. “That’s how much of a competitor she is.”
While she is a competitor on the field, she is all about others away from it.
When Kumar got her driver’s license, she spent plenty of time after practice with her teammates. But her mother didn’t realize what she was doing.
“I had five or six parents come up to me and say, ‘I just love Shaili, she’s always welcome in our home. She’s been such a mentor,’” Vaneeta Kumar said. “This was news to me.”
She was investing in people like Brianna Arthur, a freshman who has scored seven goals. During a team retreat early this season, Arthur did her best to fit into an unfamiliar group. Kumar eased the transition.
“She would hang out with us so we wouldn’t feel left out,” Arthur said. “I felt good about having her around me. I’ve been playing better than I have in a long time, and I know a lot of it has to do with Shaili and a lot of the other upperclassmen helping to build my confidence.”
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Kumar knows her role and embraces it. Teammates call her “the mother of the freshmen.”
“I like to bring everyone together and I don’t like to exclude people,” she said. “If someone has no one to talk to, they know they can always come to me.”
The Braves had 11 seniors on the roster a year ago. This season, Kumar and Rebecca Fogel are the only seniors. Kumar took to the role immediately.
“Her personality is so infectious,” Berry-White said. “She’s charismatic. She’s funny even when she’s not trying to be. She has everybody together, and that’s part of being a senior and a captain.”
While Kumar has a lighter side, she also follows in the footsteps of her studious family. Her mother has a law degree, her uncle is a doctor and her grandfather is a neurologist at IU School of Medicine in Indianapolis. Kumar hopes to be a doctor herself.
But before looking ahead, she is focused on winning one more game. Not just for herself, but for her family half a world away.
Kumar’s father spoke to the team before the Braves competed at semistate in Evansville a week ago, reminding them that they weren’t just playing for themselves. He keeps the people in Bodwank updated on the team through a Facebook group. It was a message that stuck not just with Kumar, but also with her teammates.
Win or lose Saturday, Kumar’s father knows the impact his daughter has made back in their tiny Indian village.
“They all consider her one of their daughters,” he said. “They’ve taken on all of the team. She’s an inspiration to the young ladies and men back home and the Indian community here. You don’t see too many Indian girls in athletics. I think she’s put a stamp on it.”