December 26, 2013

Perez catching fire with Lee Flames

Each of his past three soccer seasons — two at the high school level and one in college — David Perez advanced one round further and one match closer to capturing the end-all championship.

He plans on having three more chances to finally finish the season with a win.

Perez, who graduated from Northwest Whitfield High School this year, helped the Lee University (Cleveland, Tenn.) men’s soccer team reach the championship round of the National Christian College Athletic Association earlier this month. The Flames lost 1-0 to Southern Wesleyan University of Central, S.C., on Dec. 7 in Kissimmee, Fla., ending their season 13-5-6 in Perez’s freshman campaign.

“I knew our team would be really good, so I always was trying to compete for time to play,” Perez said. “Thank God I was able to play in every game and start in a few games at the end.”

Perez was a two-time member of The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Boys Soccer Team and helped Northwest reach the Class 4A state tournament quarterfinals in 2012 and semifinals in 2013. In both seasons, a region championship and state championship escaped his grasp despite Perez breaking the program’s single-season scoring record last season with 25 goals.

He also had 18 assists for the Bruins, who lost 2-0 in overtime to cross-county rival Southeast Whitfield in the state semifinals. Southeast went on to lose to Dalton in the title match as schools from Whitfield County took three of four spots in the semifinals.

“It’s tough. I’m really close,” Perez said of his title hopes. “I’ve lost in the semifinals and now the finals. But our team at Lee is really young. We only have two seniors and two juniors. So we’re looking good for the future.”

Before this season, Lee University competed in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the same affiliation as Dalton State College. The school’s athletic programs are transitioning to NCAA Division II status and will complete the process for the 2015-2016 school year, when Perez will be a junior.

This season, Perez was one of six freshmen on the Flames’ roster. He played in each of Lee University’s 24 games and started sparingly as a left forward in the Flames’ 4-3-3 formation. After an injury to a more experienced player, Perez earned more playing time and more starts.

“I was asked to step in and take a bigger role — taking set pieces and corners, all the things he used to do,” Perez said. “He was a big player so I never got the chance to start until the end.”

After receiving a partial scholarship to the college, Perez knew the level of play would be higher.

“The biggest thing was the speed and pace of play,” he said. “I thought I was pretty quick leaving high school and thought I was fast, but everyone in college is fast, too.

“I had to improve my touches and adapt to the college game.”

Lee University advanced through the NCCAA regional tournament and then three rounds of the national tournament. Perez was named to the 16-player all-tournament team for the latter event and joined defender Gabe Franco as the only two Flames players receiving the recognition.

In the first round of the national tournament, he had a goal and two assists in a 4-0 win versus Mid-America Christian University (Okla.) and followed the next match with an assist in a 2-2 tie against California’s Fresno Pacific University. The tie was good enough for Lee to secure a spot in the semifinals, where the Flames beat Fresno Pacific 2-1 to set up the title match with Southern Wesleyan.

Perez finished the season with three goals and five assists.

“At the end, when they were giving the awards out and announcing the all-tournament team, they announced my name,” Perez said. “It felt great. I knew hard work would pay off eventually. I was so proud of my teammates.”

Perez has also thrived in the classroom. He said he has a 3.6 grade-point average and is leaning toward a degree in secondary education.

“I did really well,” he said. “At first, I had to get used to it. High school was kind of a breeze. It was tough to manage soccer and school.”

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