Juan Gomez could see his breath in the air despite coming through his face mask as he stood with his hands on his knees during a January soccer match.
It was the opening match of his final season at Mount Airy High School, and the senior cherished the few seconds of peace he had before play resumed. The Granite Bears had a chance to beat conference rival Bishop McGuinness in Kernersville for the first time in more than seven years.
As his heart and mind raced, Gomez glanced at his wrist to see a message on the bracelet he taped to his wrist.
“Hard work beats talent.”
Reading this reminded Gomez of his ultimate goal. Just like that, the feelings of exhaustion faded away. He regrouped and helped Mount Airy overcome a 2-0 deficit to defeat the Villains 3-2 in extra time.
His senior season was a huge part of why Gomez’s soccer career was extended beyond high school. He signed his NCAA National Letter of Intent in the spring, and made things official this week by moving in to Emory & Henry College.
“It feels great and is still kind of surreal,” Gomez said. “I never imagined myself being here like three or four years ago.”
Continuing his soccer career was always the dream for Gomez. As he moved into high school, he felt like he was behind and that he needed to be part of a professional club by the time he was 13 or 14 to stand a chance playing at the next level. He even tried out for a professional club in Columbia in 2019 at the age of 15.
Gomez went into the tryout feeling confident. His confidence only grew when he was placed with the 13 and under group, but that feeling didn’t last long.
“In first 10 minutes I was throwing up behind the goal while everyone was playing,” he said. “It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. It really showed that you can wish to be good all you want, but you actually had to put in the work to be good.”
That reality check led to Gomez working out more on his own time instead of waiting for soccer season. He had always trained his fundamentals, but this gave him the opportunity to research the game and how he could maximize his impact in certain situations.
Results weren’t immediate, however. Juan tried out for N.C. Fusion – a club based out of Winston-Salem – the following summer and was placed in the lowest level.
“I remember crying in the shower and telling my parents I wanted to quit,” Gomez said. “But my parents kept encouraging me. They kept saying that the best players aren’t the ones that are naturally good; the best players are the ones that have to work.
“My dad always said, ‘If you stand next to an academy player and asked me which one is better I would say you. He just has the name to go on, while you have an entire body of work.’”
Mount Airy was a great place for Gomez to build up his resume. His JV team as a sophomore would likely contend with some local varsity teams, and the Bears varsity teams were one of the top-ranked programs in the state. Gomez’s sophomore year, Mount Airy’s JV went on the road and defeated Bishop McGuinness’ JV for the first time.
He advanced to the varsity team his junior year and helped the Bears win a conference championship and hold opponents to just six combined goals in 25 games. Gomez came off the bench as Mount Airy finished 23-2 in 2019 and finished the year as the West Regional Runner-up.
“I want say thank you to Coach [Will] Hurley because he was the one that got me to play center back,” Gomez said. “I said I really didn’t think that was for me, and he told me that’s where I was best suited and that ‘You’re playing for the team, not for yourself.’ The choice of moving back there really turned out well for me.”
The 2020-21 season had two big question marks for Mount Airy. The first was whether or not the soccer season would even take place with COVID-19 running rampant.
“I was very anxious because I knew that if I was to ever get on a college soccer team I had to have a great season this season,” Gomez said. “I remember checking the news hourly the day the athletic association was supposed to make the announcement.”
Even though the status of his senior season was in the air, Gomez continued his training. He said that throughout the entire offseason he wore his bracelet with the mantra “hard work beats talent” on it. He also said this was an opportunity to prove his dedication.
When the season was announced, Mount Airy wasn’t sure what to expect after losing 10 seniors from 2019’s historic team that featured a pair of All-State players. Gomez was given an opportunity to shine and took advantage of it. He and the Bears won the Northwest 1A Conference Championship outright with an undefeated conference record.
Mount Airy ran the conference gauntlet and also tied two games against two of the state’s top-ranked teams. This included a 0-0 draw against the 2019 1A State Champions.
During the season, Gomez consulted a counselor at Mount Airy about potential colleges where he could play soccer and also study biology. Emory & Henry stuck out, so Gomez contacted their coach and arranged for him to come see Mount Airy’s first-round playoff game against North Moore.
The Granite Bears won the match 3-1, and Gomez received an official offer from the school soon after.
“And now we’re here,” Gomez said. “It’s true: I’m not the most naturally gifted person. Two years ago I was never in the conversation to be recruited by colleges. But I proved that I’m capable of working harder than ever before and that I could play at a more advanced level. It’s almost like that saying: trust the process.”
Gomez said that he could’ve never reached this point without the support of his parents.
“I would always come home upset if I didn’t do well in practice, but my dad helped me by saying, ‘Everyone wants to be the star, but if you’re not willing to work like a star then you’re never going to get there,’” Gomez said. “I know I put in the work and used the talent God gave me.”