2013 ALBANY HERALD PLAYER OF THE YEAR, BOYS SOCCER: Bainbridge's Mejia can't be denied

Luis Mejia, whose transition from Mexico to America was not an easy one, is already being labeled the best soccer player in the Bainbridge High School history — and he’s only a junior. Mejia led the Bearcats to their first region title in 2013, scoring 25 goals and assisting on 10 others, and he was named the Region 1-AAAAA Player of the Year. (Photo courtesy of The Bainbridge Post-Searchlight)

Luis Mejia, whose transition from Mexico to America was not an easy one, is already being labeled the best soccer player in the Bainbridge High School history — and he’s only a junior. Mejia led the Bearcats to their first region title in 2013, scoring 25 goals and assisting on 10 others, and he was named the Region 1-AAAAA Player of the Year. (Photo courtesy of The Bainbridge Post-Searchlight)

BAINBRIDGE --- Luis Mejia will never forget the tears.

They streamed down his face as he sat in Jamie Ard’s fifth-grade classroom, emotions that needed no translation for the disheartened Mejia, who had just moved to Bainbridge from Mexico with his family.

He had no friends — and didn’t speak a word of English.

All he had was soccer.

“Coming to a new place, you have to start from the bottom, and the one thing I knew how to do was play soccer,” Mejia said.

In the six years since coming to America, the kid who grew up playing soccer in the streets of Matamoros in the northeastern corner of Mexico has helped transform the soccer program at Bainbridge.

The junior guided the Bearcats to their first Region 1-AAAAA title in the spring, has caught the attention of scouts across the state and is The Albany Herald Player of the Year in boys soccer, marking just the first time a Bainbridge athlete has been named a Herald POY in any sport (Alexis Burke, basketball, 2010).

And none of it comes as a surprise to Ard, who used soccer to connect with Mejia years ago at John Johnson Elementary School and introduced the future star to its YMCA soccer program in town. Ard is now the head soccer coach at Bainbridge and said the best season in school history wouldn’t have been possible without Mejia.

“Winning the region sure wouldn’t have happened without him,” Ard said about Mejia, who was named the Region 1-AAAAA Player of the Year after scoring 25 goals and adding 10 assists. “Throughout the year the one guy we knew we could count on was Luis. Luis is just rock solid. He played every game and started every game. He was Mr. Reliable for us.”

Mejia’s biggest goal of the season might have come March 29 in the de-facto region title game against Hardaway when he got the game’s lone goal midway through the first half to hand Hardaway its first loss of the season and clinch a region championship.

Nearly three months later, Mejia can still visualize the moment the ball sailed into the back of the net.

“I like to kick the ball as hard as I can,” Mejia said. “I placed it in the bottom left corner of the goal, and the goalkeeper from Hardaway didn’t have a chance. After the game I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe we actually made history.”

For others — like Ard, who was a member of the Bainbridge soccer team in the mid 1990s and has been coaching the team since 2004 — the region title meant even more.

“I have been around this program as a player when we literally went 1-15,” said Ard who was named the Region 1-AAAAA Coach of the Year this season. “Not too many years ago we were getting mercy ruled by Lee County and (Thomas County) Central, and it was a pipe dream to think we would one day beat them.”

Mejia was right in the middle of the special season in Bainbridge, leading the team to a 14-3-2 record and doing so at a brand new position. He moved from midfielder — a position where he had 13 goals and 16 assists as a sophomore — to forward, where he was able to show off his natural talent as a soccer player.

It was that same innate ability that Ard saw in Mejia more than half-a-decade ago in John Johnson Elementary School.

“When he first walked into my fifth-grade classroom, he was a little pudgy fellow, and he would come into class every day and cry and want to go home. He could barely speak English,” said Ard, who now teaches fourth grade. “But by the end of the year we had connected over soccer. He would ask to get on the computer any chance he could and try to look at clips of (Brazilian soccer player) Ronaldinho. So soccer is what we would talk about.”

Ard also caught glimpses of Mejia’s talents on the sidelines of the high school soccer field, where he served as a ball boy for his brother Juan’s team.

“During those times he was out there and by seeing him at the YMCA, I saw potential in him,” Ard said. “And just seeing his older brother play and knowing you have his little brother coming — when you see an older brother as good as Juan was, you start checking in to see how many more they have coming.”

When Mejia finally arrived on the scene, he did so with a bang.

It just took everyone outside of Bainbridge a few years to notice.

Because soccer is a low-profile sport in this part of the state and Bainbridge has been anything but a powerhouse in recent years, Mejia was never invited to play on any travel or All-Star teams until his junior season. It wasn’t until just recently that Cairo soccer coach Robert Peterson asked Mejia to play on his club team, which will be Mejia’s first opportunity to showcase his talent outside of a Bearcats uniform.

Mejia, however, was hesitant to join the team.

“I said I would try out, but my only worry was that I wasn’t financially set,” Mejia said. “I don’t like to tell my parents about that kind of stuff because I know they would do whatever they possibly could to make it happen. I just didn’t want to put that on them.”

But Peterson wanted him anyway.

“He said to try to come up with as much money as I could, but even if I couldn’t he wanted me to play for him,” Mejia said.

This summer Mejia has been working multiple jobs — including at a packing house and translating for doctors with Spanish-speaking patients — to raise enough money to pay for his spot on the team. It’s a testament to how hard of a worker he is on and off the soccer field.

“He is just a good kid,” Ard said. “His grades are solid. There’s never a discipline problem. And he might be the best soccer player we have ever had at Bainbridge. That’s not a stretch to say. He is definitely in the conversation.”

Mejia says it just comes naturally for him on the soccer field.

“I came from a town where soccer is all we did all day, every day. We played in the streets, no matter if it was raining or snowing,” he said. “I just try to score as simply as I can. Some people try to do all of these fancy moves, but I just try to keep it simple and easy for myself and my teammates. Whenever I have a chance in front of the goal, I don’t think about it and just kick it into the back of the goal.”

Mejia is left-footed, and Ard said the stronger he gets with his right foot, the more of a scoring threat he will become.

“The scary thing about Luis is that he can get better,” Ard said. “He is very strong. He is a dominant lefty, and I challenge him to get stronger with his right foot. If he can develop that right foot, the sky is the limit.”

The “pudgy” fifth-grader has turned into a rising soccer star, but every now and then Ard will take Mejia back to those teary memories and lonely days in fifth grade when Mejia’s journey as a Bainbridge soccer player began.

“We reminisce sometimes back to fifth grade,” Ard said. “We will talk about it when he has moments like he had this year when he did so well for himself. He’s come a long way from those days.”

2013 Albany Herald All-Area Boys Soccer Team

Player of the Year Runner-up

Andrew Sullivan, Jr., Midfielder, Deerfield-Windsor

Why he’s here: Scored 24 goals and had 21 assists — both team highs — and was named to the GISA Class AAA All-State team.

All-Area Team

Edin Ancelmo, Jr., Forward, Americus-Sumter

Why he’s here: Scored a team-high 33 goals in just 17 games while battling injuries through the season, played in the GHSA state all-star contest and was named to the Class AAAA All-State team.

T.J. Clay, Senior, Forward, Sherwood Christian

Why he’s here: The 2012 Herald Player of the Year followed up his 33-goal junior season with 30 goals as a senior and extended his career scoring record at Sherwood. He was named to the GISA Class AA All-State team and will play next season at Pointe University.

William Orr, Senior, Center Midfielder, Sherwood Christian

Why he’s here: Is the career assist leader at Sherwood and had a team-high 18 his senior season. He was named to the GISA Class AA All-State team and will walk on the Darton State College soccer team next season.

Brian Eidenire, Senior, Defender, Crisp County

Why he’s here: His strong leg and ability to clear the ball made Eidenire the last line of defense for the Cougars before the opposing team reached the goal, and he was far-and-away the best player and leader of the Crisp team.

Hunter Johnson, Senior, Forward, Lee County

Why he’s here: Finished the season with a team-high eight goals and four assists for a Lee County squad that finished fifth in Region 1-AAAAA.

Daniel Provence, Junior, Midfielder, Bainbridge

Why he’s here: Had eight goals and five assists from the midfield and was a key part of Bainbridge’s first Region 1-AAAAA championship.

Lanier Freeman, Freshman, Forward, Deerfield-Windsor

Why he’s here: Just a freshman, he made the GISA Class AAA All-State team with nine goals.

Brantley Talley (Fr.) and Grant Wollam (8th-grade), Goalkeepers, Deerfield-Windsor

Why he’s here: The tandem split time in the goal for the Knights and each finished the season with goals-against averages of 1.0.

Tanner Stumpe, Junior, Forward/Midfielder, Westover

Why he’s here: Was named his team’s offensive Player of the Year and led the Knights with 15 goals.

Steven Vaiakulavich, Senior, Goalkeeper, Westover

Why he’s here: Was the top keeper in Region 1-AAAA and finished the year with 86 saves and a 1.8 goals-against average.

Kevin Vicente, Junior, Center Midfieler, Westover

Why he’s here: Was second on the team with 12 goals but led Westover with 18 assists.