East Union soccer coach Ronnie Green had heard the tales of a freshman placekicker blasting 55-yard field goals in practice for the school's junior varsity football team.
“I was told he plays soccer, too,” Green said. “I said this kid is something we can use.”
He was right.
Now a junior, Perez showed off that powerful right leg in the biggest game in program history, spearheading the Lancers to their first California Interscholastic Federation Northern California Regional championship.
He was always a threat to score, especially on set pieces, but the Manteca Bulletin All-Area MVP proved to be more than a one-trick pony in his first full varsity season.
“Every year he kept getting better and better,” Green said. “His attitude got better, and he became a more well-rounded player.”
Perez topped area players with 56 points (23 goals and 10 assists). East Union compiled a 17-3-8 record in its historic campaign but went 14-0-2 in its final 16 matches.
Perez was part of back-to-back Valley Oak League championship teams at the JV level and led it with 29 goals and seven assists as a sophomore. He was promoted to the varsity for the playoffs, and while he didn't play much Perez did play a part for the eventual Sac-Joaquin Section Division III runner-up.
In the second round, East Union battled higher-seeded El Capitan to a 1-1 tie through regulation and extra time. Green did not hesitate to insert him into the lineup for the penalty-kick shootout. In fact, he led off with the youngster, who of course buried the PK.
“He's one of those kids who thrives (under pressure),” Green said. “He wants that responsibility. He will not shy away from it and will take every PK. He has only missed one PK, and he ended up scoring on the rebound anyway.”
The 2018-19 season did not end as the Lancers had hoped, losing to Ceres 2-1 in the final round of the SJS playoffs before an disappointing 3-0 home loss to Pleasant Valley in their first appearance in a NorCal Regional.
East Union graduated its top two offensive weapons, each of them 20-goal scorers. If there was any doubt that they could get another shot at a section title, it didn't come from these Lancers.
“I felt like it pushed me more for this year,” Perez said. “People didn't think we could make it far this year.”
They did have their struggles earlier in the season, particularly on the attacking end. Two returning starters were ineligible at the outset, and they missed the first month-plus.
Perez handled much of the load offensively in the meantime, while the steady defense did well to keep the team in most games.
“Coming into the year we knew were going to have a pretty solid team, especially our defense,” Perez said. “To be honest, the defense led us this year.”
The combination of Perez's clutch scoring ability and the three-man defense backed by goalkeeper Fernando Ambriz keyed their playoff success. More on that later.
In VOL play, East Union continued to be plagued by its struggles to finish scoring opportunities. The Lancers outplayed eventual league champ Weston Ranch twice but had no wins to show for it, losing the first meeting 2-1 and tying the second, 0-0. That was their only loss to a league opponent. And it was their last loss of the season.
“We still had to work for more chemistry,” Perez said. “We were getting comfortable with each other. Once we made the playoffs, it felt like the team played way different. We were more motivated, and when we won the section (title) that's when everybody stepped up even more.”
Perez scored in nine of East Union's 12 league contests, and the team was 7-0-2 in those outings. He recorded 13 goals and six assists and was awarded MVP of the league.
In the postseason, his shot attempts went down as he suddenly transitioned into a playmaker. That subtle change, Green said, made the team even better. This 6-foot striker who relied on speed, strength and a cannon of a leg to create his own goal-scoring opportunities was now seeing the game as a facilitator.
“In the first half of the season he was looking to take opportunities for himself,” Green said. “For some reason, about two-thirds of the way through, he flipped. He was looking for everyone else to score and kind of over passing, which isn't a horrible to problem to have.
“Throughout the playoffs he found a happy medium. He just really matured.”
Perez factored into the scoring in six of East Union's seven playoff games, contributing to half of its 14 goals. But it was in the biggest moments when he shined most.
The Lancers knocked off the top-three seeded teams in the SJS Division III bracket starting with No. 3 Pacheco. Before that, though, they had to ward off No. 11 El Capitan. Perez played a part in both goals in the 2-1 win, assisting the first and putting away the game-winner in the 68th minute.
He clutched up again at Pacheco, converting the go-ahead PK in the 74th minute. East Union then sneaked past No. 2 Patterson 1-0, setting up a showdown with highly-favored top seed Galt.
Perez didn't hit the deciding goal in the 2-0 victory, but his breakaway score with 8 minutes to go deflated the relentless Warriors.
The highlights did not end there for Perez.
In the NorCal Division III opener against Shasta, he forced overtime with yet another late goal — this one with 10 minutes remaining. That was when he missed a penalty kick but headed the ball into the net off the deflection. The Lancers went on to win with a golden goal.
Then in the semifinals against Branham, Perez assisted Alex Arroyo's game-winner in the 71st minute. That was the final connection on an impressive corner-kick sequence that started with Jonathan Ponce's cross, a header near the opposite post by Alberto Gomez and a negative ball from Noe Martinez.
“He can be a game changer at any moment,” Green said. “It may not come in every minute of every game, but he's one of those players who steps up when he needs to.”
He did it again in the NorCal final against Harker, another powerhouse from San Jose.
In the 15th minute, Perez was presented with a straight-on look at the goal from about 35 yards away on a free kick. He bent his shot around the Harker wall and landed it on the lower-left corner beyond the reach of the diving keeper.
“The kid has the strongest leg I've had as a coach,” Green said.
It was all the Lancers would need with Ambriz and the defense doing their part as they had all postseason — they gave up just four goals in the seven games. East Union added one more goal for good measure in the final minute, and the celebration was on at Dino Cunial Field.
All three of the team's NorCal games took place there after its final three section contests were away from home.
“That was really cool,” Perez said. “Those three games were the most fans we've ever had. It felt like the fans helped us, they had a part in it, too.
“I was just really happy we were the first ones to get it at our school. We really proved ourselves.”
Perez proved himself as a player and a champion. Green plans to challenge him in other ways.
“He's definitely a big reason why we are section and NorCal champs — without him it doesn't happen,” Green said. “Now I want him to be a leader. He has the talent and he continues to mature, but he has the opportunity to be a captain.”
MVP: Cristian Perez, East Union, Jr., striker
Offensive POY: Adib Guedoir, Sierra, Sr.
Midfielder of the Year: Alex Arroyo, East Union, Sr.
Defensive POY: Francisco Vega, Weston Ranch, Sr., goalkeeper
Elvin Bolanos, Weston Ranch, Sr.
Noe Martinez, East Union, Sr.
Ricky Alvarez, Ripon, Jr.
Tristan Gonzalez, Sierra, Sr.
Alex Herrera, Manteca, Jr.
Gerardo Magaña, Sierra, Jr.
Kevin Urrutia, Weston Ranch, Sr.
Jesus Vega, Weston Ranch, Sr.
Jonathan Bautista, East Union, Sr.
Armando Garcia, Weston Ranch, Sr.
Fernando Ambriz, East Union, Jr.