SPEEDWAY — A familiar face greets Speedway soccer coach Dean Heaviland and his son Joey, a sophomore midfielder, on their drive to school each morning. It's Kervens Saint Paul on his bike, happily bobbing his head with a big smile on his face as he rides to school. "Hi coach!" he'll call out with a wave.
Show up early for practice and you'll likely witness the senior striker's arrival. He'll come flying in "at about 50 miles per hour," Heaviland laughed, and come to a sliding stop right by the field. Stick around after a game and you'll see Kervens hop on his bike for the ride home — regardless of what time it is. Heaviland has offered his star player a ride home, but Kervens politely declines.
"It's a 10-minute ride, but I can make it in like five or six minutes depending on my mood," Kervens said. He likes to take his time when he's feeling down, "but when I get excited, I can get it in like five minutes."
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That's Kervens: Bright, positive and happy, said Mindy Lewis-Hitch, an English as a New Language teacher at Speedway. Lewis-Hitch has known the Haiti-born Kervens since he moved to Speedway with his family in 2021, and watched as he's quickly blossomed into a multilingual scholar who's in multiple advanced placement classes and always eager to help his classmates.
"His personality — it's glowing," Heaviland added. "That's probably the best word to use, and it's the attitude he had when he first came in. I don't think he has an enemy."
Heaviland has tracked and aided Kervens' rapid development on the soccer field. An electrifying talent, he announced his arrival last season with 27 goals and seven assists, and has been equally prolific in 2023, netting 31 goals for the two-time defending sectional champions.
Kerven caught fire at the Marion County tournament (six goals through the first two rounds), and now hopes to lead the Sparkplugs to their fourth sectional championship since 2019.
The senior steps onto the field and his worries go away. When he finds the back of the net, the pure, genuine joy shines through. "There's been times when he'll score and celebrate, and opposing fans get upset, but they have no idea of him and his story, where he's coming from and what he's done," Heaviland said.
"You wish nothing but the best for him."
The positivity Kervens radiates was inherited from his mother, the late Youdline Valeus. She was always happy and upbeat, her son said, explaining how she worked two jobs so he could attend a private school in Haiti, and sought to secure a better life for her family by moving them to Chile and then the United States.
Valeus died in a car crash last summer, and in the 15 months since her death, Kervens has stepped up (with assistance from his cousins) to help raise his two younger brothers, getting them ready for the day and ensuring they're looked after.
It's a massive undertaking and Kervens recalled a time when it gave him anxiety to play soccer with them at home. But with encouragement from his stepdad, the energetic striker has continued chasing his dreams of playing college soccer.
'He's an incredible kid.'
Kervens was on an early morning walk when he received the call. The police were already there by the time he got home.
It was June 17, 2022. Kervens' mom, Valeus, was on her way to work when her car crashed into a retention pond near a warehouse just outside Brownsburg. She was trapped inside the car and drowned.
She was 34.
"That was really tough," said Kervens, who had to translate English to Creole for his stepdad, Jergens Amazan, with the police. "We didn't (have time to) process anything. It just happened. … After a couple days I said, 'I need to find my strength so I can help my brothers.' And that's what I did. That's what I did."
Valeus wasn't planning to move her family to the United States when they joined her in Chile in 2020. She had fled Haiti a year earlier due to political strife, but following her second year in South America, she and Amazan decided to relocate to the U.S.
"They wanted to find us a better life," Kervens said. He was 16 at the time and had learned about the U.S. while growing up in Haiti. "I knew it was a good country where I could get a lot of opportunities," he continued. "I thought it was a good move."
Kervens' first four months in America were "scary." An Atlanta resident at the time, he recalls seeing other children playing outside but not being able to join them because of the ongoing COVID pandemic and the language barrier. "It was pretty tough," he said, but he found a home at Speedway, where he was enrolled in Lewis-Hitch's beginners English class for international students.
"I could tell right from the beginning he was special," Lewis-Hitch recalled.
Already proficient in both Creole and French — an opportunity afforded to him by attending a private school in Haiti — Kervens used "every tool in his linguistic toolbox" to complete an exercise, be it applying his knowledge of French and cognates, or taking what he already knew and using Google Translate.
Within the first few weeks Kervens — who further strengthened his English through flashcards and podcasts — was walking around and helping his classmates, effectively bridging the gap between them and Lewis-Hitch. "He's a connector," she said of Kervens, who boasts a lofty GPA and has since added Spanish to his linguistic repertoire (that's one of the five AP classes he's enrolled in).
"I can't overstate how much of an impact he's had. He's an incredible kid," Lewis-Hitch continued. "You get burnt out as a teacher, but when you have kids like Kervens, that's a reason you say, 'Yeah, I'll do that again next year.' … He's just spectacular."
'He's a breath of fresh air for us.'
There have been times when Kervens has forgotten a name or can't find the proper words when he's about to go on a run. So instead, he laughed, he'll just yell "Hey, hey, hey, pass it over here!" or begin gesturing wildly with his hands. But "right now, everybody knows where I'm going to be and where to put the ball," he grinned.
Heaviland and his staff were unsure what to expect when Kervens first joined the team for winter workouts prior to last season. He was a polite young man, who was eager to learn and clearly appreciated the opportunity to even play, but with the team stuck indoors, it was basically impossible to assess how the self-ascribed defender might fit in with their veteran group.
Then they moved outside, running some 7-on-7 drills on a smaller field.
And completely miscast, at least within their program, as a defender.
"It was like, 'Oh, wow. There's something there,'" Heaviland said.
Kervens was "the missing piece" for Speedway soccer, adding a premier scorer to a group that returned four seniors along the backline. Though joining a team that had mostly grown up together, Kervens' new teammates treated him like one of their own with the Class of 2023 acting as ambassadors from the moment he arrived on campus.
"He's a breath of fresh air for us. He brings a lot of joy, a lot of enthusiasm, to every practice — and he's a great player," said Cale Bennett, the Sparkplugs' starting goalkeeper last season. "It's just great having him on the team. We love him."
"They made me feel welcome, like I was on the team and important," Kervens smiled. "They made me feel like I was home."
Heaviland checked in with Kervens regularly in the days and weeks following Valeus' death.
What do you need? What can I help you with?
We're good. We're OK. Everything's fine, the junior-to-be would reply.
Heaviland did everything he could to help get Kervens' extended family to America for Valeus' funeral, completing the necessary paperwork and working closely with the Senator Mike Braun's office to obtain the proper documentation. Unfortunately, there was nothing that could be done, Heaviland lamented. "I felt horrible."
"I know immigration, it's (basically) impossible," Kervens said. "They tried, and that meant a lot."
The day of the funeral was extremely difficult, Heaviland recalled. He attended the one-hour visitation preceding the private ceremony, as did an assistant coach and a number of Kervens' teachers. And there was Kervens, taking care of everything from welcoming out-of-town family members to watching after his younger brothers and occasionally translating for his stepdad.
"He really just held it all together," Heaviland said. "It was unbelievable."
'The sky's the limit for Kervens'
Kervens made his unofficial Sparkplugs debut during a preseason scrimmage against Class A power University last summer. It was his first taste of game action since moving to the U.S. and marked his full-time return to soccer following his mom's passing.
He had tried coming back a couple weeks after his mom's funeral, but was overcome with anxiety, preoccupied with looking after his siblings. Those obligations seemingly left his athletic future murky, but Amazan encouraged his stepson to play. "He gave me strength," Kervens said.
Those responsibilities still exist. Kervens does the laundry and ensures the pantry is stocked — his cousins handle the cooking — and will help his younger brother with his homework before putting him to bed. But, with help from his cousins and management of any free periods during the day, he's become adept at balancing their needs with his own classwork and soccer.
"I'm fear-free," Kervens beamed. "I'm living my life. I'm taking care of my brothers and my stepfather, then I come to school and try to be a better person. … When I'm playing soccer, I forget everything. Then when I walk off the pitch, everything comes back."
Kervens put on a show in his debut vs. University. He demonstrated the speed and touch his coaches caught glimpses of during the spring, and scored on some of the "most incredible shots" they had ever seen by a high schooler. It was a prolific debut and set the tone for an equally dazzling junior campaign, one which earned Kervens All-District honors and IndyStar ALL-USA Central Indiana Super Team recognition.
"You knew he was special. He was a natural fit," Heaviland said, before offering an equally exciting observation: Kervens is still very raw with ample room to grow.
Though he hopes to find a team once high school season concludes, Kervens has yet to play club soccer and hasn't had much in the way of formal training. "A lot of (his success) has been on talent alone," Heaviland continued, "so he's still learning the team game and all the different aspects."
Already an excellent 1-on-1 player, Kervens' coaches want distribution to be front-of-mind, too, emphasizing the importance of getting his teammates involved. To wit, practices this season have been spent running technical drills focused on distributing and receiving back.
The focus on skill development and individual training is unique to the American game, Kervens said, but he's embraced the shift in mentality, and it's beginning to come more naturally for him.
"The sky's the limit for Kervens," Heaviland said, praising the striker's improved field vision and passing abilities. "He's like a hidden gem because he's already a very good player who is only going to continue to get better as he keeps refining all of his skills and develops into a more complete player."
'I'm living my dream'
Kervens made a pledge to his mom when they first came to America. "I'm going to be the best soccer player for (Speedway)," he told her. "(And) I'm going to make it to college, to play college soccer."
Hopefully, Valeus replied.
Valeus moved her family to America with hopes of securing a better life and more opportunities for her children. Kervens has certainly fulfilled those goals. He's become an ambassador for international students, welcoming them to the school and helping get them settled in, same as others did for him when he first arrived.
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In soccer terms, his aspirations of playing at the next level remain well within reach. He joined his teammates for college camps over the summer and is drawing interest from a few different schools. Asked if he'd like to remain in Indiana, the response was a resounding yes.
"This is my home now," Kervens said, smiling from ear-to-ear.
Watch Kervens before a game and you'll see him take a knee off to the side. He's talking to his mom, saying a little prayer. Valeus never saw her son play, but he knows she would be proud of him. "Look at me right now," he said. "I'm living my dream."
Follow Brian Haenchen on Twitter at @Brian_Haenchen.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indiana soccer: From Haiti to Speedway, Kerven Saint Paul makes mark