Making adjustments is nothing new for Joseph Toto.
He has gone from being the go-to guy at Milford Mill in the lowest division of the Baltimore County soccer leagues to being a contributor on an Archbishop Curley High squad that competes in Baltimore's premier conference and was ranked as high as No. 3 nationally.
The Liberian native has gone from a public school where, Toto said, wearing designer clothes and impressing female classmates was the norm, to a Catholic boys school where the dress code requires slacks, button-down shirts and ties.
Adapting has been a lifelong necessity for Toto, 17, a junior who spent his first six years in war-torn Liberia, and who finds himself in his third country and his fourth American school.
"Joseph's always had to learn to fit in, adapt to his environment, make adjustments to survive," said Toto's club coach, Nigel Fullerton. "Joseph has been taught by his parents that life in general is about survival."
Toto experienced early on the absence of his father. Ernest Toto said he made the "difficult" decision to leave behind 4-year-old Joseph and family members to escape their country's fighting.
"I was little, don't remember a lot, but I remember being scared," the son said. "I was aware that there was a war going on, and that people were dying around us. But my mother always told me not to worry, that we would find a way out. She kept telling me to focus on school and playing soccer."
Toto and his mother, Lucy Moore, fled their home when Joseph was 6. She told him, "I will protect you," as they, a few of his siblings, relatives and friends walked for about a week to safety in adjacent Ivory Coast as a battle encroached.
"We could hear the gunfire, but we escaped before it came to our city," said Moore, who left the coastal town of Buchanan. "There was a large group of us. We encouraged each other and stuck together."
When Joseph was 8, the refugees traveled by bus from the Ivory Coast to the Buduburam camp near Accra, Ghana, where "we had truly reached asylum and could be at peace," Moore said.
"Joseph did ask a lot of questions about the war, and I would explain things to him without going deep into it. But playing soccer with his friends kind of kept his mind off of it," Moore said.
"I always played soccer with bigger people. ... Sometimes I'd come home late and get a spanking because I would just play all day," Toto said.
At 12, he came to the United States as a refugee and moved with his mother to Trenton, N.J. After one month he joined his father, Ernest.
"It was a tough decision. But we thought it better that he live with his father," said Lucy Moore, 33, an in-home care provider for the elderly who now lives in Willingboro, N.J.
Joseph lives in Randallstown with his father, a Baltimore cab driver, and his stepmother. "In our family, Joseph is the one who is being looked up to," Ernest Toto said. "He's the one who is supposed to make his mark.
"I tell him, `Being in this country is a privilege,' and, `You've got to achieve the best that you can - first by getting your education, and also with your soccer skills.' "
Joseph Toto attended Lansdowne Middle and Owings Mills High, where, as a ninth-grader, he missed soccer tryouts.
"Because of the transition to a new school from Ghana, his reading and math were slightly below the standard and his grades suffered at Lansdowne. I had to really help him every night with his homework," Ernest Toto said.
Toto's father said his son improved at Owings Mills as he became accustomed to being in the country, then enrolled at Milford Mill as a sophomore for its physical therapy course.
At the urging of a cousin, Toto joined the Millers' soccer team and had an immediate impact. He was the top scorer with 34 goals and 20 assists, and one of two Liberian-born players on a team composed of six players from Jamaica, three from Trinidad, two each from Ethiopia and Nigeria and one from Ghana.
The Millers won the Division III championship, and Toto earned second-team All-Baltimore City/County honors in The Sun. Toto, however, ached for better competition, and his club team coach intervened.
Fullerton met Toto as a ninth-grader and recruited him to his under-19 junior Raiders. "Skill-wise, Joe's talents are all natural, and he plays with a heart and pride that you just can't teach," Fullerton said.
At a Blast game, he told Curley coach Barry Stitz about Toto, and the coach met with the player's father in July. Toto enrolled and was on the practice field at Archbishop Curley on Aug. 11.
That was the first time Stitz saw Toto kick a ball. He described "a player with flair, a lot of raw talent, quickness, creativity and speed."
"I thought he maybe took a little too many touches, and his style was a little different than we like to play," Stitz said, but overall the practice was "a very good first step."
The next step was blending in on a tight-knit team whose players had been together for three seasons.