Tom Harper had watched the magic for almost four years, but he sure didn’t mind seeing it one last time Saturday night.
The Mehlville boys soccer coach was in the stands at Anheuser-Busch Center for the Missouri Athletic Club Senior All-Star Game. While he enjoyed seeing the area’s most talented boys go at it, his favorite part was watching former Panthers Emir Alihodzic and Aris Nukic work together on the South squad.
“They have logged so much varsity time together, you can tell there is something about those two,” Harper said. “Magic is really a good word for it. They see the game differently than most kids do.”
At the midway point of a scoreless first half Saturday night in the first competitive game they played together since last fall, their shared vision was at its very best.
Alihodzic brought the ball up the left side when he saw Nukic, stationed at the top of the penalty area, flash his usual signal.
“He pointed to his feet,” Alihodzic said of his good friend and forward. “So I sent it to him.”
Rather than try and turn against a pair of defenders, Nukic one-timed the ball back to a charging Alihodzic as he broke in on left wing. From 10 yards out, Alihodzic slid the ball past North goalie Jeremiah Cooper (Trinity), just inside the far post, and the South led 1-0.
“They just worked a little one-two off the corner,” Harper said. “I’ve seen them do it a million times.”
The South went up 2-0 in the second half on a goal from Dan McCune of Kennedy with 11:30 left. Then a minute later, Nukic drew a foul in the penalty area and knocked his penalty kick past North goalie Travis Abt (St. Dominic) for the final goal.
A Lindenwood signee, Nukic made it look easy.
“I acted like I was going to shoot to one side, and the keeper dove,” Nukic said. “Then I just chipped it right down the middle.”
Harper said that when he received an email from all-star game coordinator Dan Hogan informing him of their selection, the Mehlville Bosnian connection was pretty pumped up.
“You could hear the surprise and excitement in their voices,” Harper said. “Emir is a little bit more reserved than Aris, but they were both looking forward to it.”
South MVP Alihodzic, who will play Division I soccer at Nebraska-Omaha, almost didn’t get the opportunity. At first his parents didn’t want him going to school that far away from home. But Nebraska-Omaha coach Jason Mims came to Alihodzic’s house to meet with his parents and convinced them it would be good move.
“I was nervous, because I really wanted to go there,” Alihodzic said. “He (Mims) showed a lot of courage and respect coming over like he did.”
A playmaker first and foremost, Alihodzic finished with 18 goals and 12 assists last fall. Nukic scored a team-high 34 goals and added 15 assists. He also had eight game-winning tallies.
The tandem helped the Panthers to a 14-11-1 mark. Mehlville lost to Oakville in the district semifinals 2-1 in overtime last fall. The Panthers also lost a regular season overtime game to the Tigers by the same score.
“I will never forget that game,” Alihodzic said of the playoff game. “I still have bad dreams about it. We had some really good chances to win it.”
Harper said he can’t imagine either player not making an impact at the next level.
“We stress to our kids to look for the goal first,” Harper said. “Every time they had the ball, they would see where someone else could score or where they could. They are both so creative.”