At Pinecrest Academy boys’ soccer practice Monday, Paladins goalkeeper coach Eric Quintana set up the battlefield. Two goals faced each other 50 feet apart. Pinecrest senior goalkeeper Luke del Balzo stood in one, his opponent in the other. They were ready for a drill they call, “Goalie Wars.”
“Three minutes guys,” Quintana said.
And the battle began, del Balzo and his opponent peppering each other with kicks and throws, trying to score as many goals as possible within the time constraints.
Del Balzo made a diving save to his left.
“One minute,” Quintana said.
He made another to his right.
Del Balzo conquered his opponent, 6-5, and awaited his next victim.
“It really simulates the close quarters of game situations that you really couldn’t prepare for before,” del Balzo said.
Del Balzo is going into his third season as Pinecrest’s starting goalkeeper, and yet it’s only been recent, though, that Quintana implemented “Goalie Wars” into the team’s practice regimen.
It’s no time to be complacent for del Balzo and the Paladins. Pinecrest is coming off the program’s best season since joining the Georgia High School Association in 2009. The Paladins went 14-3 and won the Region 8-A championship, the first for any Pinecrest athletic team in the school’s GHSA era. They went into the Class A private school playoffs a top seed and a top contender. Indeed, they earned a bye into the second round.
But all of Pinecrest’s regular season accomplishments vanished with a 1-0 loss to Pace Academy.
“That’s been a huge factor so far,” del Balzo said. “We lost a couple of guys last year who graduated, but this year we’re definitely determined to maintain the composure we had during the [regular] season and definitely bring that into the postseason.”
The Paladins have another talented group this season. Pinecrest returns 70 percent of its scoring from last season, led by Stephane Rivard, the all-region forward.
The big question is the back line, where Pinecrest lost its two center backs to graduation, specifically Alex Brenner. From the moment del Balzo became Pinecrest’s starting goal keeper as a sophomore, he had Brenner, an instinctive and skilled player who could command the entire unit. Now, he has a first-year starting senior and a first-year starting junior.
“Like any situation, it’s a bit difficult at first,” del Balzo said, “but I’m very confident in the guys stepping in. They’ve got big shoes to fill, but they’re filling them quite well so far.”
Pinecrest head coach Chris Kane has grown accustomed to that measured approach from del Balzo. He calls the senior a “great kid” and “very humble.”
“I don’t think if you’d meet him in the hallway you’d put together that he’s the starting goal keeper and all-region last year and team captain,” Kane said. “He’s very humble and very respectful.”
Kane’s has noticed those attributes in the way del Balzo communicates with Pinecrest’s new defenders too. Del Balzo doesn’t blame or scold.
“He’s teaching back there,” Kane said.
Del Balzo dips from a well of soccer knowledge, a well that first started to be filled by his father, Chris, who grew up playing the position throughout his teenage years in Italy.
Luke started playing goal keeper in fifth grade. He’s not sure why, he said, though maybe his father’s history had some impact. He just felt an intuitive predilection for the position.
Chris was Luke’s first trainer. There was a small soccer field in the neighborhood where Luke grew up, and the two would go there to practice. It was basic at first – a little running to warm up, some drills Chris knew from his own experience, some others he found on the internet.
Today, Luke gets his physical training from Quintana, but Chris remains significantly a part of Luke’s preparation. It happens right before games. The two will walk together, away from the rest of the team, and talk. Eventually, Chris leaves Luke to wander alone, and the senior begins to visualize situations during the game, with one notable difference – all he sees is the ball.
“Especially in soccer, everything gets cluttered in your mind,” del Balzo said. “You have to worry about this, you have to worry about that. You have to worry about where the attackers are, where your defenders are in response to them, and so the pregame talks, really, you just zone out, and it’s just you and the ball. It’s a very secluded process. It’s kind of almost monk-like.”
And it’s worked. Despite the normal fluctuation of a high school roster, Pinecrest has been able to rely on del Balzo in goal.
“He’s been someone who has been a rock for us the last three years,” Kane said.
Del Balzo won’t play soccer in college. He’s been approached by some, particularly Emory University, where he’s already been accepted. He downplays the opportunity. He plans to study for a career in medicine, maybe as a pediatric surgeon. No surprise for a guy who helped lead Pinecrest’s mock trial team to its first district title in school history.
Instead, he’s focused on his senior season and has committed to Pinecrest’s preseason edict – discipline, unity and fortitude.
“I hope for his sake we’re successful [this season],” Kane said. “I know if he has anything to say about it, we will be.”