The next two days' importance for U.S. Grant's boys soccer team can't be overstated.
The Generals are 9-2 and in a tough race for one of four playoff spots out of their difficult district. Monday, U.S. Grant plays at unbeaten Norman North, ranked No. 6 nationally by ESPN.
Then Tuesday, the Generals host Bishop McGuinness in a game that could have enormous postseason implications for both teams.
For some outside observers, any U.S. Grant team ranked No. 7 in Class 6A and fighting for a playoff berth might be surprising.
The inner-city school is known for its often well-publicized academic, athletic and socioeconomic struggles. But the boys soccer program is proud, successful and operates with a consistency under coach Stephen Cookson that is unusual for U.S. Grant teams.
Cookson is in his 14th year as the Generals' coach. During his tenure, he's taken U.S. Grant to the playoffs seven times, including the past two seasons.
This year's team has 12 seniors, nine of which are starters, and 60 kids total out for the team.
Compare that to the football program, which began the 2011 season with 57 players and finished with 19.
Some of that is because of soccer's greater appeal to the school's largely Hispanic student body.
But much of the program's pride and success can also be attributed to consistency. The 12 seniors on this year's squad have virtually all played together since middle school, and Cookson has been with the program since being hired as an assistant coach in 1996.
The football team, on the other hand, has been led by four different coaches in the last four years.
“When a team has four coaches in four years, it makes it difficult,” Cookson said. “A coach comes in with his system, and so a kid may have to learn four different systems from their freshman year to their senior year.”
Cookson has sent around a dozen of his players on to college soccer.
“I'm going to stay at Grant as long as they'll keep me,” Cookson said. “Once I caught on here, I fell in love with the school.”
Senior midfielder Fraol Legesse, who leads the team with 13 goals, said Cookson is like a “second dad” to the team.
“Some of us come from bad families, so he's willing to do everything for us,” Legesse said. “If someone can't get a ride to school, he goes to pick them up.”
Legesse and his teammates are mindful of their school's reputation, and take pride in showing another side of it.
“People talk about us,” Legesse said. “There's some schools that come to our home stadium, and have some smart questions like, ‘Hey, did somebody get shot?' or ‘How many people died at your school?'
“That motivates us even more to show people that some of us are working hard to get to another level.”
They're also playing for the coach who means so much to them.
“Coach Cookson is like family to us,” said senior Amilicar Carrasco. “We want to win the games for him.”