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Saimir Zepaj is a leader for Salem State men’s soccer team

Saimir Zepaj is a Salem State soccer leader.

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Saimir Zepaj is a Salem State soccer leader.

Salem State 28-year-old scores

Whenever foes depart Salem State’s Alumni Field after a matchup against the Viking men’s soccer team, opposing coaches frequently ask Don Goodwin where they can grab a tasty bite to eat before their long bus ride back to their respective campuses.

“I just point them into the direction of Sammy and say, ‘Go ask the guy who scored a goal against you,’ ” said the Salem State coach, with a chuckle.

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“Sammy,” formally know as Saimir Zepaj , is not a typical student athlete.

A 28-year-old senior forward for a Division 3 program pegged to finish first in the MASCAC in a preseason coaches poll, Zepaj returned to the university in 2011, after leaving in 2005 to open his own restaurant.

He is the owner of Sammy’s Roast Beef and Sea Food, located on Canal Street, less than a mile from Alumni Field.

“That’s basically where you make your own business, by getting to get yourself out there and donating,” Zepaj said. “They appreciate it when you donate pizza to the team, and they’ll pay you back basically. I always take care of them and they have a good time.”

On the field, Zepaj is one of the primary returning attackers for the Vikings (11-7-1), the reigning MASCAC regular season champion that lost in last year’s conference final to Westfield, 3-0.

After netting eight goals and four assists in 2012, the 5-foot-11-inch Peabody High graduate (class of 2003) will team up out front with Eryk Fernandez (14 goals, 4 assists), the reigning conference Player of the Year.

“The best thing is, because Sammy goes, he makes good runs, sometimes maybe too much, but most of the time he’s full-bore ahead,” Goodwin said. “Eryk has a really good ability with the ball and takes advantage of what others are doing. Sammy creates trouble for the defense, and Eryk exploits it really well.”

The Vikings kick off the season Wednesday at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, a day before Zepaj’s 29th birthday, the culmination of a week of daily double sessions.

Zepaj said he loves the intensity of two workouts per day, which is no surprise. Hard work is the foundation of his family, which fled Albania in 1997 while the country was in the midst of a rebellion.

“It’s a better life,” said Zepaj, who moved to Peabody when he was 13.

“You can sleep at night time and don’t have to worry about anything. There’s a job, and you get paid. In Albania, people didn’t get paid right on time, and there was a catastrophe in Albania and the people overtook the government; there were no police.”

After his freshman year at Salem State, Zepaj withdrew from the university and opened his restaurant in 2005. He had previously worked at his uncle’s pizza shop, Boxford House of Pizza, and at Mikey’s Famous Roast Beef in Beverly.

“When we first came here, we didn’t speak enough English,” said Zepaj, who now speaks with a faint European accent. “You don’t know any other experiences so you start working as a cook. You don’t need to know English to start cooking, and my whole family has been cooking all their life.

“Here, everyone starts eating out, and it’s unusual for people to eat at home. Everybody worked together to buy a business, and everyone worked harder and bought another.”

His brother, 34-year-old Marenglen , opened Maria’s Place — a breakfast diner on Jefferson Avenue in Salem. His other brother, Klevis , 38, helps him manage Sammy’s.

“It was a very happy thing,” Zepaj said of coming to the United States. “Plus we have our own business and we’re doing well.”

Once Zepaj established the restaurant, he decided to return to school and pursue his degree in criminal justice, while taking advantage of his three remaining years of NCAA eligibility.

Zepaj is often playing with athletes 10 years younger. But Goodwin says it gives the Vikings a unique sense of leadership on the field, which will be crucial this season as Salem restocks its midfield and defense.

“He brings an edge,” Goodwin said. “The edge can be trouble sometimes because some people will call that hot-headed. But most of the time, it’s a great competitive focus.”

Zepaj joked that the other players “tell me I look younger and I feel better,” he said.

“I know I’m older and I have a lot on my shoulders to show [the other players],” Zepaj said. “I’m like a father. I have to lead them, and tell them that if I can do it, than they can do it. If I’m running, then they have to run.

“I make sure to talk to them not on, but off the field and make sure that next time they stay awake, and tell them everything will be fine and better off on the next one. But they won’t make mistakes, because they are very good kids.”

Reading High loses, gains a coach

Reading High baseball coach Pete Moscariello retired this past spring, ending a storied 35-year career headlined by 14 Middlesex League titles and a state championship.

He also left big shoes to fill.

There was no better candidate than David Blanchard , a teacher at the high school, who was named the new coach last week.

Blanchard coached the Reading junior varsity squad for five years under the tutelage of Moscariello before becoming the head baseball coach at Winchester High. He is also the defensive coordinator for the Reading football team. In another coaching move, Jim Debenedictis has been hired to replace Kim Penney as varsity girls’ basketball coach. He was the JV coach from 1998 to 2004, and the varsity assistant from ’98 until last season.

Maritime soccer has 9 veterans

The Massachusetts Maritime women’s soccer team begins just its sixth varsity season on Wednesday, with coach Ray Cabral welcoming back nine letter-winners, including Emily Behen , a sophomore from Danvers who scored six goals as a freshman.

After capturing the Division 3 national championship last season, the Tufts field hockey team is ranked first in the preseason National Field Hockey Coaches Association poll. The Jumbos received 29 of 48 first place votes after going 19-2 in 2012.

Anthony Gulizia can be reached at gulizia.ant@gmail.com.
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