Tomas Perez was hungry for a second shot at a state title.
His Atlanta International boys soccer team reached the GHSA Class A championship game last year, only to lose to Paideia. He missed that contest because of injury, and he wanted to come back and finish the title game on his own terms.
“It was heartbreaking,” Perez said. “We wanted to avenge ourselves and to work as hard as we could.”
He fulfilled his wish Saturday. The senior forward scored twice as Atlanta International defeated Stratford 3-0 for the GHSA Class A boys soccer championship at Mercer’s Five Star Stadium.
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After losses in the 2012 and 2014 title contests, Atlanta International (16-2-1) won its first boys soccer championship.
“We worked as hard as we could,” Perez said. “We worked as a team, we played as a team. We were motivated, and we wanted it more.”
Stratford, which was taking part in its first GHSA soccer final after moving over from the GISA, was prepared for a quick-flowing game on Five Star Stadium’s artificial surface. But Stratford’s speed was neutralized by Atlanta International’s size for much of the contest, with Atlanta International controlling the flow for most of the first half and parts of the second.
Perez’s first goal came 26 minutes in when he headed Matias Ferandel’s pass past Stratford keeper Jacob Lischer. It wound up being the only goal in a half in which Atlanta International outshot Stratford 7-3.
“We knew (Stratford) scored a lot of goals this season and that people struggled to score against them,” Atlanta International head coach Danny Cox said. “We shored up our defense and made sure we were solid back there, but we also packed the midfield. We knew if we could get the ball into (Perez), he was going to score us a couple of goals, at least.
“We knew if we could control the game, keep them from getting goals and get them out of their comfort zone, we knew we could play our game and use the pitch to our advantage.”
Stratford (14-5) came out aggressively in the second half, recording three shots in the first five minutes as it tried to find an early equalizer. But a mistake defensively by Stratford with 28 minutes to play swung momentum in Atlanta International’s favor for good.
On a ball that was headed away from the goal, James Mitchell played the ball with his hand inside the penalty area. The foul resulted in a penalty kick for Perez, who netted it with ease for his 44th goal of the season.
Stratford didn’t have many opportunities from there, putting up just three shots after the initial second-half surge.
“One thing (Atlanta International) did well was close down our speed,” Stratford head coach Ian Hayley said. “We’re a quick team. On that field, they were able to close that down on us. That neutralized us a little bit, one of our weapons, for sure.”
Atlanta International wrapped things up with its final goal with 7:19 to go, when Logan Paradies knocked home Nicolas Perez’s cross.