After Pinecrest Academy's boys soccer team started the season 0-4 – outscored 19-3 by opponents – the players and first-year head coach Domenic Martelli had to stop and take the team's temperature. After all, Martelli was in his first year with a team that lost loads of senior leadership from last year's state playoff roster, so even he was adjusting to the conditions at hand—a much younger, smaller club than the Paladins were used to.
As it turned out, senior Lucas Perez took it upon himself to act as the team's thermostat, if you will. It wasn't the goal differential that mattered to Perez, but rather the fight of his team. Martelli immediately took notice of Perez's leadership and tenacity, as well as his maturity.
“He has all of the physical tools, but also the non-soccer tools, and that's what makes him so special,” Martelli said. “He's the first on the field, first one in drills, first in sprints, he'll even go grab a kid who may not be doing well and help him technically and conditionally. He makes jokes when we need to be a little light-hearted, and he'll keep us in check when we're winning too.”
When the Paladins fell 6-1 in their season opener, Perez was furious. A few days later, walking off the pitch from a 3-1 win, he applauded the team and told them they needed to play with that type of energy all season.
“Our goal against Pace Academy in the opener was cheap, so really, we didn't fight hard at all,” Perez said. “But in our second game we fought so hard. We fought to the last second. Our goals are surely to win, but really what's more important is how we fight.”
Perez's message has caught on. Since the rough start, Pinecrest is 7-2 and 5-1 in league play, now shifting its focus from struggling to score goals to making another postseason run. If they do it this time, they'll need Perez to lead the charge.
Perez's unusually advanced maturity was instilled when he was just 14 years old. At the time, he had a friend who went to the Netherlands for a study abroad trip that included soccer training. Perez was keen to the idea, so he asked his father if he could apply to a soccer academy. He ended up traveling to Spain as a freshman, spending August through June with the Edukick International Soccer Academy, a boarding school that combined rigorous training with learning Spanish.
Perez's adjustment came with the academics, as well as having to learn to take care of himself overseas at such a young age.
“Just doing laundry on my own, everything was an adjustment,” he laughed.
At that time soccer was a newfound love for Perez. His father a native of the Dominican Republic, Perez originally was fond and good at baseball. He'll even still throw with Andres Perez (no relation), Pinecrest's standout baseball player, in his free time.
But soccer has become Perez's ultimate passion, and now he's hoping to build a career in it. Perez raised Martelli's eyebrows enough that the coach pulled some strings and made some phone calls to Georgia State University. Martelli coached soccer at Georgia State for 12 seasons.
“I'm going to keep in touch with them and see if it's a good fit,” Perez said.
“I know for sure he can play at that level,” Martelli said.
He'll soon be a freshman once again, but Perez isn't worried about role changes anymore. He knows who he is, and who he will be in the future.
“I've learned how important it is to set an example, to adapt to situations,” Perez said.