Mr. Soccer: Mariner’s Leo Perez picks up huge honor
After a season filled with highlight reel goals, breaking records and making history, Mariner High School’s Leo Perez was bestowed the title of Mr. Soccer.
The award, given each year to the top player in the state by the Florida Dairy Farmers and voted upon by statewide media and coaches, was certainly earned by Perez, who led his team to the FHSAA Class 4A state championship match, scoring a school record 71 goals along the way.
Perez is the first Lee County athlete to earn the honor since the awards inception in 1993. He also set a single season school record for assists this year with 33.
“I was excited. I was happy,” Perez said of earning the title of Mr. Soccer, the last missing piece of honors the phenom could collect, and one he was aiming for.
Next year, he’ll take his talents to Division 1 soccer, suiting up for Navy.
“I’m very happy for him,” said Mariner boys soccer head coach Martin Cardenas. “It’s a long journey, and he’s worked really hard.
“He came in as a freshman and had a lot of potential and just didn’t realize how much potential he had. The end of his sophomore year, I think that’s when it kind of clicked for him to work harder and dedicate more time off the field to be among the top players in the state, and he did.”
Over his four years at Mariner, Perez netted 150 goals — another school record — and tallied 68 assists. No Mariner boys soccer team had ever reached the state final match and Perez played a huge role in getting them there despite a heartbreaking loss.
“It was a great season. We had a long run,”” Perez said. “We really tried to form a great chemistry between all of the guys. We made sure we were one.
“Being able to have all of those great memories, and now with the coronavirus, thank God we had that season. A lot of the spring kids aren’t going to be able to have that last season.”
Cardenas saw the promise in Perez from his freshman year and knew Perez could be a special talent.
As he watched him grow and mature, he saw his work ethic soar.
“I wasn’t an off-ball movement player, I was more of a player with the ball at his best,” Perez said of his skill set early on. “I wanted to be a player who was a threat without the ball as well.”
Cardenas recalled a tough loss against rival Cape Coral during Perez’s sophomore year. He talked to Perez, who was visibly upset after the game, and consoled him.
Cardenas saw the determination in Perez that night to get better, to learn and to take a leadership role.
“He took that same approach to almost every game,” Cardenas said. “He went out and decided to be proactive as far as him being his worst critic. I very seldom had to tell him what he needed to work on that he didn’t already know.”
Perez created a dramatic rise in his ability from his sophomore to junior year, one that ended with Perez being named Florida’s Gatorade Player of the Year, an award he is up for again this season.
“I really started focusing all of the time, watching film, really putting a lot of time into what I love and my goals,” Perez said.
He became more of a goal scorer, he said, and really turned a corner heading into his final campaign with his brothers.
“This last summer, I feel I really turned a corner,” Perez said of his improvement.
He worked hard every day, spent time in the weight room, ran and tried to get better, faster and stronger. To be “unstoppable.”
“If you don’t work hard, you’re not going to get where you want to be,” Perez said. “Even now I’m not where I want to be. I have higher goals. Everything’s not given to you, you’ve got to go get it.”
Cardenas said he’s seen Perez work to develop his game and watched it play out on the pitch week after week.
“It’s pretty difficult to be as good as him when you’re one dimensional,” Cardenas said. “He’s put together overall pretty good. He keeps himself pretty humble so he keeps working hard, not just on his fitness and his strength and his quickness — everything that he does is pretty realistic; he makes moves, creates a little bit of space, he’ll turn — he understands the game. He remembers what happens when he’s not as successful, and he uses that in his training.”
Perez said he’s become that off-the-ball player who draws attention even without possession, something that was certainly evident throughout the season, as many teams would have defenders surrounding Perez at all times.
“I can read the game a lot better now when I don’t have the ball, and that’s a big part of the game,” Perez said. “I’m always trying to get better, that’s just the competitor in me.”
Mariner Athletic Director Steve Larsen said Perez has been a model student-athlete during his time at the high school.
“Leo has been a fantastic student-athlete in all phases of school life,” Larsen said. “On the field, his effort, energy and work ethic are unmatched. He represents himself very well in the classroom and in the hallway. He has always done a great job mentoring younger athletes, not only soccer kids.”
Larsen ranks Perez’s accomplishments right up there with alumni Earnest Graham (Mr. Football Florida and Ted Dupay Mr. Basketball Florida) and Mike Zunino (Golden Spikes Award for best college player, current MLB catcher).
“Leo ranks right up there with his accomplishments thus far,” Larsen said.
Perez was humbled to be in such company.
“Just being in that conversation is crazy,”” Perez said. “It’s really cool, but it doesn’t change anything. I just want to keep working hard.”
According to Mariner’s athletic department, Perez holds seven school records: career goals (150), goals in a single season (71), goals in a single postseason (14), goals in a game (6), hat tricks in a season (15), fastest hat trick (2-plus minutes in), and assists in a season (33).
Cardenas said he will remember Perez not just for his accomplishments on the pitch, but the personal bond he created with him, and many players, as well.
“I will remember Leo for the person that he is,” Cardenas said. “He’s funny, he’s quirky and he’s just fun to be around. He’s always been that way. He’s a great person.
“Obviously on the soccer field, he’s a big impact player. I doubt we’ll have anybody like him for another 20 years.”
Cardenas recalls many times when he and Perez would just chat — either about soccer, or a funny joke he wanted to tell coach or just to have fun.
This past season is one Cardenas and his players will not soon forget.
Cardenas believes this past year’s group was truly the definition of what a team is.
“This group of kids really, really worked hard for each other on the field,” Cardenas said.
When asked what Perez would remember most, he flashed back to a moment before the state final game.
The Mariner boys pulled up to Spec Martin Stadium in their vans, sweats and shorts on, having a good time, feeling loose. Perez remembers looking over and seeing the players from Gulliver Prep getting off of their coach bus, all in suits.
“All I could think is, ‘We really did this,'” Perez said. “It wasn’t intimidation, it was more, ‘Look at us, we really made it this far.’ We were just being us.”
Perez knows the bond he made with his teammates and fellow seniors this year will be one that lasts a lifetime.
“Painful ending, but after some reflection, the ride was awesome,” Larsen said. “Leo was the undeniable leader. His senior class gave everything they had for four years.”
Perez hopes his impact and legacy on the school is one where the program thrives because of all they accomplished.
Perez thanked his family, coach, friends and God for his successes.
– Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj