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Soccer coach leads students to follow dreams, higher education

Juan Perez, 38, of Gilroy coaches the Atwater junior varsity girls’ soccer team at Atwater High School on Thursday. Perez, who also coaches the Buhach Colony varsity boys’ soccer team, also created a soccer program at Yosemite High School.
Juan Perez, 38, of Gilroy coaches the Atwater junior varsity girls’ soccer team at Atwater High School on Thursday. Perez, who also coaches the Buhach Colony varsity boys’ soccer team, also created a soccer program at Yosemite High School. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

They say that a good coach will make his players see what they can be rather than what they are.

Coach Juan Perez strongly believes that.

Perez, 38, a native of Gilroy, coaches boys’ varsity soccer at Buhach Colony and girls’ junior varsity soccer at Atwater High School. Last year he also implemented a soccer program at Yosemite High School, where he works as a campus liaison.

Forming the soccer program at Yosemite, he said, has been one of his greatest accomplishments. When he started at Yosemite High two years ago, he was not sure what to expect. He said he had heard negative stories about alternative education schools, but as the school year progressed he found out these stories were not true.

“A lot of these kids come from broken families,” Perez said. “They just need some guidance.”

He explained that for many students at Yosemite High, school and sports become their outlets, and some just need someone who will listen to them. “If I can do anything to help deviate them from trouble, I’m here for them,” he said. “That’s my job.”

Yosemite High’s soccer program competes against alternative education campuses. The team has placed first in a couple of local tournaments, he said.

His supervisor, Gloria Gonzales, the associate principal at Yosemite High, recognizes the influence Perez has on students. Gonzales knows this firsthand because Perez was also her son’s football coach at Atwater High a few years back – before he devoted himself to only coaching soccer. She said her son, who plays football at Southern Oregon University, credits Perez with giving him the desire to continue sports at the collegiate level.

Gonzales said she admires the respect students have for Perez, which she attributes to his calm, transparent approach.

“Being a campus liaison is one of the toughest jobs,” Gonzales said. “(As a liaison) you’re an advocate for these students, but you also have to maintain discipline.

“Students are challenging,” she continued. “But Juan has a way to get through them.”

Perez’s influence goes beyond the campus’s fields. Students seek his advice even after high school.

When Winton native Manny Villegas was offered a spot on a professional Mexican league team during his senior year at Atwater High, he thought he had made it.

Around the same time, California State University, Stanislaus, offered him a full-ride athletic scholarship. He then had a tough decision to make – if he signed a contract with Club Atlas in Mexico, he would have to leave before his high school graduation. If he pursued an education at Stanislaus State, his dream of playing professionally would be put on hold.

Villegas said he sought the advice of coach Perez, who had become a mentor and role model for him.

“Coach opened my eyes,” Villegas said. “He made me realize how important education was.”

Villegas said Perez told him soccer was not forever, and without a high school diploma and college education, there was very little he would be able to do if he were ever injured. Villegas, now a second-year kinesiology student at Stanislaus State, realizes how true Perez’s words were.

To this day, Perez still attends some of Villegas’ college games. “He’s always been like that – very supportive,” Villegas said.

He also shared a story about the time Perez went to see him and others at a soccer club tournament in Las Vegas. “He had no association with the club, but we invited him and he came to see us. ... That’s the type of man he is.”

Playing professionally after college is still in Villegas’ plans, and Perez said he will be rooting for him along the way. “I know it’s their dream,” Perez said. “But I always push for education first. Of course in the end it depends on the kid and his family.”

Currently, another one of Perez’s former athletes plays for Querétaro FC, a professional soccer club in Mexico.

“It’s a good feeling to know you’re helping them get there,” Perez said. “That’s why I love what I do.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ana B. Ibarra can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or aibarra@mercedsunstar.com.

Editor’s Note:

Merced Matters appears on Monday. In it we tell the stories of Mercedians – ordinary people doing extraordinary things, extraordinary people doing ordinary things and a lot in between. Contact dhill@mercedsunstar.com or (209) 385-2456 with your ideas for Merced Matters.

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