A Winning Friendship

High-scoring Houapeu, Bulls Bridge Cultural Divide As They Lead Umbc

November 07, 2009|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Andrew Bulls was reared on organized soccer. Levi Houapeu grew up playing pickup games in the dusty streets of his West African homeland.

Bulls, of Millersville, never lacked for the best equipment. Houapeu played barefoot and shaped rudimentary goals out of rocks.

Now they are teammates at UMBC, a couple of high-scoring wunderkinds who lead the Retrievers against Binghamton tonight (7 p.m.) in an America East tournament quarterfinal game in Vestal, N.Y.

Bulls leads the NCAA Division I in total points (40), with Houapeu right behind him at 39. Bulls, a sophomore, has 15 goals and 10 assists. Houapeu, a junior, has 14 goals and 11 assists.

Together, they've carried a fledgling UMBC team to a 12-5 mark and fifth place in the eight-team America East. The Retrievers have no seniors and were picked to finish last.

Their scoring tandem changed that. On Wednesday, Bulls was named the league's Striker of the Year, and Houapeu the top midfielder.

Eight of Bulls' goals were game-winners. Houapeu? Twice, the native of the Ivory Coast has scored hat tricks, getting three goals each in victories over Albany and Drexel.

Neither player is jealous of the other's success - a rarity in big-time soccer, said Bulls, a graduate of McDonogh.

"I've played with a lot of great players, but Levi is the first with whom I haven't felt competitive, like, he has to score more goals," Bulls said. "He doesn't need to be on top.

"Levi wouldn't think twice about passing the ball to me instead of shooting. We love sharing the ball. We look for each other. We don't try to do things all by ourselves - and it shows."

Ask Houapeu about his scoring prowess and he flashes a sheepish, almost apologetic smile.

"Yes, I am No. 2 in the nation, but my brother, Andrew Bulls, is No. 1," he said. "I love to give assists, to see my teammates score, and to see the smiles on their faces. That's what makes me happy."

Houapeu speaks with a French brogue, which he and Bulls use to their advantage during games.

"We yell things to each other in French," said Bulls, who learned the language in high school. "The defense doesn't know what we're talking about."

That the pair have jelled so well surprises UMBC coach Pete Caringi.

"I've watched them develop as players, but never in my wildest dreams could I imagine them being one-two in the country," he said. "What's amazing is how they can come from such different backgrounds, yet read one another so well on the field."

Bulls was a soccer prodigy, having played rec ball almost from the time he could walk. He was 3 and attending one of his older brother's games when a coach spotted the toddler plugging away on the sideline.

"I was kicking balls from 18 yards out and hitting the net," Bulls recalled.

He has been on somebody's roster since.

Houapeu's past is less regimented.

"There were no soccer fields where I lived [in the Ivory Coast], so we all learned how to dribble on our own," he said. "I got my first soccer ball at 10, for Christmas, and I'd kick it as I walked to school every day."

At 12, Houapeu moved to Maryland with his family - his father works at the Ivory Coast Embassy in Washington - and settled in Germantown.

By high school, Houapeu still hadn't mastered the tenets of soccer.

"My freshman year at Watkins Mill, I didn't know what offsides was," he said. "I used to be offsides eight or 10 times a game."

At UMBC, he and Bulls have formed a bond. They live in adjacent apartments, play soccer video games and, sometimes, just kick back and talk. When he learned that Bulls was taking an economics class, Houapeu - an economics major - offered support.

When they eat together, Bulls and his teammates tease Houapeu about those heaping platefuls of rice, the staple of his homeland diet. And Houapeu, playing along, offers them a taste.

Given his druthers, he would have rice all the time. But Caringi is firm in keeping UMBC's pre-game meal a carb-heavy spaghetti and meatballs.

"Levi will eat spaghetti, if you make him," Caringi said.

"I told him, 'The Italians have won four World Cups.' "

UMBC@ BINGHAMTON

America East quarterfinal

Tonight, 7

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