PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. — In the heart of Minnesota lakes country, there’s a high school boys soccer team that is one of the most misunderstood in the region.
It doesn’t matter where the Pelican Rapids Vikings are, people always have the same question.
“Where are you from?”
With a population that’s almost 50% non-white, Pelican Rapids is one of the most diverse rural communities in Minnesota. The Vikings boys soccer team has players who were born in Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Fargo, Africa and Mexico, but many have lived in Pelican most of their lives.
That’s why when any team member is asked where they’re from, the group has one answer — “We’re from Pelican!”
The response quickly evolved into the team’s motto. It’s also where the name for the recently released documentary about the team, titled “We Are From Pelican,” came from.
“It really just means we are from Pelican Rapids,” said junior center back Oscar “Lico” Pedroza. “We don’t need someone else telling us, ‘Where are you guys from?’ and all that stuff. We all know where we're from, where our backgrounds are from. But our real home is here, in Pelican.”
“We Are From Pelican” is a seven-part docuseries that tells the story of the team’s season as they pushed for a deep playoff run in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The series rolls through each week of the season, showing the highs and lows of the team’s unforgettable year that included an injury crisis, monumental wins and a few heartbreaking losses.
But it’s more than a highlight tape.
The documentary addresses the off-the-field issues the coaches and players deal with, like mental health, microaggressions, medical emergencies, stereotypes and anger.
“A lot of the project was just, how can we talk about tough issues in a way that can engage everybody?” said Vikings head coach John Peter, the driving force behind the docuseries.
The boys soccer team had a camera following them for months. A student camera crew had access throughout the entire season, documenting life on and off the field amidst the pandemic.
“I just thought we have a unique community here that’s very misunderstood,” Peter said. “And we have this unique team, so how can we get some more kids involved?”
Alex Ramirez, a junior at Pelican Rapids, is the director of photography for the documentary. Ramirez answered an advertisement the soccer team put out last summer looking for students to help produce content.
“It was definitely a fun thing. Everybody would go up to the cameraman and we’d be like ‘take a picture of me’ and ‘make sure you get a lot of pictures of me in the game,'” said junior midfielder Sebastian Centeno. “It was a fun way to interact with the managers and photographers of the team.”
Peter said the filming was never a distraction for his group. He told the guys up front that students will be there to film everyday, but they may never do anything with the footage.
“If we had crashed and burned and had a tough season and then lost in the first round of playoffs, that’s kind of a crappy story,” Peter said. “But what happened, you can’t really write what happened.”
Peter keeps a tight lid on the episodes until they come out, which is 10 a.m. every Friday on YouTube. Episodes 1 and 2 premiered May 7, and the final episode, Episode 7, will be released May 28. The story reaches the climax in the finale, as the Vikings make their final push for a section championship.
Beyond the pitch
Pelican Rapids, a factory town of 2,500 people in north-central Minnesota, is home to the Vikings — a team made up of many different cultures in search of their own identity.
The rebuilding Vikings team lost eight of the previous year’s starters, but managed to have their best season in program history. Pelican is the smallest traditional public school in Class 1A to have its own soccer team.
Pelican went 10-3 this season and made it to the Class 1A, Section 8 championship for the first time, before losing to now two-time defending section champion St. Cloud Tech.
“It was definitely our best season by far,” said Pedroza, a team captain. “We achieved so much.”
It wasn’t long ago that Pelican Rapids won just three games in its first season as a standalone program in 2016. The Vikings had previously been in a co-op with Hillcrest Lutheran Academy in Fergus Falls. The school hired a complete unknown to the sport, Peter, who had previously been the school’s cross country and track coach.
The student film crew captured this season’s stellar postseason run, which included an overtime win over Alexandria in the section quarterfinals — which upset them the previous year in the playoffs — and the first win in program history over Bemidji in the section semifinals.
“After beating Bemidji, I was just thinking about the documentary and how good it was gonna be,” Pedroza said.
But behind the success was a much more complex story. Injuries piled up a few games into the season, and at one point, the Vikings were down to five guys left from where they started.
“We never had an injury crisis like what happened in Episode 3,” Peter said. “Any crisis in general next year, I think it’ll take a lot more to shake us, having gone through what we did.”
In the third episode, titled “Superheroes,” viewers also see a clip of senior captain and standout midfielder Khadar Ibrahim in the emergency room after suffering a seizure.
‘We have a mental health problem in this country and nobody wants to talk about it’
The week leading up to the release of the fourth episode, “Homecoming,” was stressful for Peter. He was about to reveal something deeply personal — his mental health journey.
Peter opened up about his bipolar diagnosis, which he received a month after the season finished.
“Anybody who wants to watch this can see it,” Peter said. “The fear of, are people going to treat me differently now because of this? Had I known then the feedback I would get from people, which has been like 100% positive, I would’ve been way calmer.”
In September 2020, around homecoming week, something was off, but Peter didn’t know what. He hadn’t been sleeping or eating well for a few weeks at that point. In actuality, he was crashing.
He put his assistant coaches in charge for the time being as he went to the doctor to get treated for anxiety and depression.
“I didn’t communicate super great. I just said I don’t have COVID and I don't know when I'm coming back,” Peter said.
Peter made it to the homecoming game, but was in a reserve capacity.
He told his players some of what he was going through, but they didn’t know the extent until the episode came out May 14. That was mainly because, at the time, he didn’t really know what was going on.
“A lot of teachers probably have a lot of mental health stuff, too, but they don’t open up about it to anyone,” said Centeno, a captain. “Him opening up about mental health really shook up our team.”
Peter’s wife encouraged him to do the documentary and share his story. It was at that point he decided the group would do the series.
“We have a mental health problem in this country and nobody wants to talk about it,” Peter said in Episode 4.
Peter worked with other teachers to create age-appropriate discussion guides for each episode, though they came up solely because of Episode 4. Each episode links to a discussion guide, which lays out some topics, and how to talk about those with certain age groups.
The docuseries can be streamed on the team's YouTube channel called PRHS Boys Soccer, or can be found by clicking here.