Before each game this season -- while lacing up their cleats, stretching a bit or running a few laps -- players on the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy soccer team took a moment to look at the photo. Each time Zach Pomerantz saw it, he said he realized how lucky he was to have his freedom. It made Raphael Menko think of how comfortable his life is in the United States. When the snapshot worked its way to Sean Savatt, he said it made him focus on playing with more toughness.
Depicted in the photograph was Eldad Regev, the 28-year-old Israel Defense Force soldier who was captured by Hezbollah in Lebanon in July 2006. The Barrack soccer team played their season in honor of the hostage.
"It's ridiculous that we can go out every day, and have a good time and be proactive, and he can't do that because of his unfortunate situation," said Pomerantz, an 18-year-old co-captain. "We wanted to do something in tribute."
After doing some research, he discovered that Regev is a soccer super fan, described by many as a "football fanatic." Regev had even completed a coaching course shortly before his abduction.
The team sewed the Givati patch -- denoting Regev's army brigade -- onto their jerseys.
"When we scored a goal, we'd kiss it to say, 'Thank God,' " said Menko, an 18-year-old co-captain who played as the team's striker.
With Regev as their inspiration, the Barrack boys flourished, ending the season with a record of 13-3 -- good for first place in the Tri-County League. League champions a year ago, they managed to cruise through two playoff games, winning 6-0 against Wyncote Academy, then upending the Woodlynde School by a score of 5-1. Barrack fell short in the championship, however, losing 1-0 to the Phelps School on Nov. 8.
The team decided to dedicate the season to Regev in early October, when they had already suffered two losses in the span of six games. Coach Will Haines said that he saw a change in the team when they took up the cause; Barrack only lost once more during the rest of the regular season.
"It definitely brought us together," said Haines, who is not Jewish but fully supported the initiative.
Savatt, also a co-captain, said that playing in honor of the Israeli elevated his play. "It was great. Not only were we playing for school pride, but playing for Jewish pride," he said.
"It gave a sense of character to the team," added Savatt.
Haines said that he was happy to see that his teenage players could relate to something deeper than themselves. "Anytime you can tie life lessons to soccer it's a good thing," he said.
The team also has another tradition. Once the playoffs arrive, players either shave their heads completely or leave a mohawk. Haines, who made sure that the team knew it was voluntary -- and not mandatory -- noted that it's done in good fun.
"Anything that gives you that team spirit, I'm for," he said.
After watching his team rise to such heights in the honor of Regev, Haines said that he felt "humbled" by the experience.
"Like most other coaches," he acknowledged, "you think you're the ones doing the teaching. Then you find out that the kids are the ones teaching you."