By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Sometimes, it can be really hard to get noticed when you’re a defensive fullback in soccer. There really aren’t any quantitative stats that show how good of a player you are, save from helping the team get shutouts or goals-against average.
Everybody knew about Nate Biersbach and Gilmer Mendoza when the Egg Harbor Township boys soccer team was playing. That duo combined for 40 goals and 13 assists — 77 percent of the Eagles’ goal-scoring output. A big reason why the Eagles won 14 of the 20 games they played this past fall was because of the scoring prowess of those two.
But another huge reason for EHT’s success was center back Lucas Lainez. To the casual fan, how well Lainez played this season probably went largely unnoticed. Not to coach Pete Lambert, however. He knows well how valuable a standout center back can be.
“We’ve been fortunate to have him on board since he was a freshman, and even more fortunate to have him healthy for all four years. He’s just a good kid, hard working, solid kid. He’s a gamer. He’s willing to put in the work, with us, with his club team, traveling back and forth to Delaware County (Pa.) to train with his club. He gave us a lot over his four years here and we couldn’t be happier for him. He’s going to play at the next level,” Lambert said. “He’s not the biggest kid out there but he has one of the biggest hearts. He has all those intangibles that you just can’t coach. He’s passionate and he plays with emotion. He’s a good, coachable kid.”
For really high level soccer players in New Jersey there’s a bit of a struggle that goes on. Club soccer is very important to the recruiting process for colleges, but players also love playing for their hometown team. Lainez, like Biersbach and others in the EHT program, faced this dilemma during their high school careers — do I fully commit to high school soccer, or go through the Major League Soccer “Next” program, a national club circuit that allows players to square off against the best players in their age group throughout the country. Lainez tried to balance that as much as possible throughout his career, he said, but nothing compared to fully committing to the EHT squad as a senior and seeing what the Eagles could accomplish.
With Lainez and the other seniors leading the way, EHT posted a 14-5-1 record, made it to the semifinals of the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament before a tough penalty kick shootout loss to St. Augustine Prep, and advanced to the quarterfinals of the South Jersey Group 4 tournament. As a freshman, Lainez was part of a group that pushed EHT into the sectional final, where the Eagles suffered a tough 2-0 loss to Toms River North.
“I remember my freshman year like it happened yesterday,” Lainez said. “For my career to already be over it just shows how fast life can hit you. I still can’t believe it. It was a very memorable career, and if I could, I would do it all over again.”
Lainez said he didn’t know what to expect when he began his high school career. All he knew was that he was intent on being a four-year varsity player. He was willing to do whatever it took to make that happen.
“Coming into the program my goal was always to be on varsity. Even as far back as seventh grade I just kept telling myself that I wanted to play varsity. It wasn’t necessarily to be a starter, but just to be on varsity and be with the big guys. I didn’t know what position I was going to play because growing up I played everywhere. My mindset was just wherever there was an open spot on varsity, I wanted it. That was my mindset, just be openminded about it,” he said. “I think I had a great career. To bring home a Cape-Atlantic League championship (in 2021) and that being the first one in our school history, that really meant a lot. Nobody can ever take that away from me. My freshman year we made the sectional finals. For years we were always an underrated team in South Jersey and were never looked at as one of the top teams. I felt like we never got the recognition we deserved. I wish we would have brought home that trophy (four years ago) but if you would have told me at the beginning of that season that we would have made it to the sectional final, I would have laughed. I just couldn’t believe that.”
Lambert said that what made Lainez so valuable was his reliability. He never got hurt — in fact, he never even came out of a game this season. Lambert just didn’t have to worry about No. 10 in the back, he was just always there, doing his thing. And with Lainez leading the way, the Eagles posted eight shutouts this past season.
“He’s one of the few guys who played every minute of every game. We always try to find guys minutes where they can rest, but we don’t typically look his way for that. As far as an EHT player, he’s not the biggest kid but has great knowledge of the game and is super competitive. He’ll play anywhere on the field that we ask him. He played mainly center back for us even though he’s probably more of a true holding center mid. But we needed him back there to lock up our defense, and he did that, without question, for four years,” Lambert said. “We’ve been lucky for four years to not really have to worry about anything in the back because he’s there. And through the years we’ve put players next to him that he could work with and kind of direct them and facilitate. He’s been like a coach on the field. He’s not the flashiest as far as numbers and goals and assists, but he does all the dirty work that oftentimes goes unnoticed.”
“I’ve always been used to playing a certain position, but (in high school soccer) you have to focus on what the team needs first,” Lainez said. “Put me anywhere, I was ready to play. And I learned how to be a leader this year. I had to adjust to that (as a senior). Everyone was looking up to me, so I had to be a role model, and I had never been put to that responsibility.”
Lainez said he’s been in talks with La Salle, and hopes to play soccer at the next level. Wherever he ends up and whatever his soccer future holds, he’ll have a great past to look back on during his four years at Egg Harbor Township High. That’s something he said he’ll take with him no matter what.
“What made this season so special for me was the fact that it was my last year, so I had to give it my all. My goal was to have no regrets and give this program everything I’ve got,” he said. “I’ll remember the friendships I was able to build throughout my four years at EHT. To this day, I still talk to the seniors who led the team when I was a freshman, and I consider them some of my closest friends. Even though they graduated four years ago, they are still my brothers.
“High school soccer meant so much to me, so I had to be a part of it. I really enjoyed it, and this senior year was very memorable for me. There will be stories I can tell my grandchildren.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
CAPTAIN’S CORNER: Lucas Lainez was in the middle of it all during his outstanding career with Egg Harbor Township soccer
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN