Collins gives record-setting edge to Packer soccer team
In most cases, athletes who find success at a given sport begin honing their skills at a very young age.
This was certainly the case for West Fargo senior striker Daniel Collins, whose love of soccer developed so quickly, his earliest playing stories actually have to be shared second-hand.
"My mom always told me when I was like, six months (old), she brought a softball out and I'd be sitting there trying to kick it," Collins said. "So they thought I'd be playing soccer growing up."
The early start led to early development for Collins, who quickly found himself dominating his peers in his home country of Liberia.
By the time he was 15, his coaches felt it was time for a promotion, selecting him to play in an upper-level league against kids as old as 19. This decision paid off, despite some early objections from Collins.
"A first I was like 'I can't play in that league, I'm going to get hurt,'" he said. "Then in my first game I had three goals. I came out of the league as (one of the top) scorers and I was the youngest kid."
Now 18, many likely thought Collins would continue surging up the amateur ranks in his home country, building towards what he hopes will become a fruitful professional career.
Instead, to the chagrin of high school players and coaches throughout North Dakota, he's in West Fargo, leading a record-breaking offensive season for a Packer team looking to bring home a second state championship in three years.
Collins' parents, Justin Collins and Michelle Hodge, separated when he was very young. Fortunately, the split had little impact on his relationship with either of his parents, who he credits as being the biggest influences in his life.
That bond was tested a bit in 2012, when Justin took advantage of an opportunity to come to America, which landed him in West Fargo. Daniel admits to "crying a lot" when his dad left and says both he and his father struggled being apart.
After nearly six years, Justin decided things needed to change. Now married and a legal citizen, Justin successfully fought to bring Daniel to the United States for his final year of high school.
Though excited for the potential reunion, being with his father meant leaving behind his extended family in Liberia. But any hesitation he felt about making the move went away following a conversation with his mother, who felt America was an ideal place for him to pursue an education while chasing his dreams of playing professional soccer.
"(She said) 'go and fight for me. (Someday) you can send for me and we can be together once more,'" he said.
Any hopes Collins had for an easy adjustment were quickly wiped out by Mother Nature. Coming from Liberia, where the average high of the "cool season" is 88 degrees, he got an immediate taste of North Dakota winter, seeing snow for the first time when he landed in the country in February.
Luckily, his transition to a new culture didn't take long, and once the season finally changed, he quickly found solace, as well as new best friend, in a familiar setting.
While playing with the Fargo-based Tri-City Storm Soccer Club, Telvin Vah, a standout forward at West Fargo who is also Liberian, went to the Johnson Soccer Complex in Fargo to play a pickup game with some of his teammates on an off day last spring.
Also there that day was Collins, who caught the attention of Vah from an adjacent field where he was blowing past defenders with his blazing speed. Knowing Collins had enrolled at West Fargo, Vah immediately approached Head Coach James Moe about getting him on the field for the Packers this fall.
"Right away, I told my coach, 'We have this new kid, he's pretty good,'" Vah said, chuckling at what proved to be a significant undersell.
The first step was getting Collins into the team's summer camp. Moe says he was instantly taken by Collins' speed, but that it was difficult to gauge how strong a fit he'd be with the team in a camp setting. That all changed when the Packers held their first official practice, where Collins quickly proved he had the polish to match his athleticism.
"Right away you could tell how he fit with the guys and the way he moved the ball with his speed and his touch," Moe said. "You knew he was going to be a quality player."
He's been that and then some. In 17 games this season, Collins has scored 27 goals, which Moe believes is a single-season team record, for a 12-3-2 Packer team that found the back of the net 72 times, also a program record.
Collins' arrival forced significant adjustments to be made throughout the Packer lineup, and no player saw his role change more than Vah.
Previously a 20-plus goal scorer himself, Vah has 10 goals this season, focusing more on distribution (he has 13 assists) and helping West Fargo solidify its midfield defense.
Even though it meant surrendering his position as the team's top scoring option during his senior season, Vah says there's never been any animosity on his part, as he even went as far as suggesting to Moe that the speedy Collins be moved into his striker position.
"I'm a captain and I want what's best for the team," Vah said. "And it's worked out."
The lineup change clearly hasn't put any strain on Vah and Collins' relationship either, as the duo has been virtually inseparable.
"He became my brother," Collins says. "I can't call him friend anymore."
When the season ends, the duo plans to go on college tours together, as Collins hopes to play at the Division-I level while pursuing a degree in criminal justice.
They've also discussed being teammates for Tri-City this spring, though Collins is also being recruited by some friends on the track team, who are hoping to utilize his speed in sprinting events.
But before any of that happens, his sole focus is on the upcoming state tournament, where West Fargo opens play against Minot at 6:45 p.m. Thursday at Cushman Field in Grand Forks.
The Packers aren't entering on the hottest of streaks, going 1-1-1 over their final three games, which resulted in them finishing a game behind Fargo Davies for the top spot in the East.
But even with the somewhat sluggish finish to the season, there is a wave of optimism in the locker room, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone more confident about their chances than Collins.
"I'm 100 percent sure we're going to win state this year," he said. "One-hundred percent."