EAST SIDE — To understand what soccer means to the boys varsity players at Washington High School, you need only to listen to senior Alejandro Llamas.
"Soccer is more than a sport to me. It's almost like another parent," said Llamas, 17. "It guides me basically. It's guiding me stay away from the gangs, guiding me to pursue my dreams and go to college, and show me I can accomplish great things."
Llamas, of East Side, has been playing soccer since he was 5 years old. In the last 12 years, he has seen friends become victims of gang violence and others leave school because of lack of focus.
That isn't the case with Llamas. He wants to attend the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he'd like to major in electrical engineering. He also sports a 3.3 grade point average.
And the midfielder is one of several standout seniors on the 12-1-8 Patriots, who play in an IHSA Class 2A super-sectional against Nazareth Academy at Lemont High School on Tuesday night with a berth in the state semifinals on the line.
"It's a great accomplishment getting this far, but we want to do more," senior midfielder Pedro Miranda said.
Soccer An 'Antidote'
Miranda's blueprint in life includes plans to make real blueprints as an architect.
Miranda, 17, of East Side, hopes to graduate from University of Illinois at Chicago. He quests to one day have the knowledge to design and build his own home.
Fellow senior and Patriots forward Arturo Aupont has similar aspirations. The East Side resident would like to go to DePaul University and study architecture.
Aupont, who is half-Mexican and half-Haitian, visited Haiti a year before the devastating earthquake in 2010 that killed more than 200,000 people. With his future degree, he craves to construct houses in Haiti that could sustain a similar natural disaster.
"The homes would be given away," said Aupont, 17. "The goal would be to have my own business here that would fund the project. At the end of the day, I wouldn't be the richest guy, but I'd be OK with that."
Head coach Alvaro Perez has seen many student-athletes like Llamas, Miranda and Aupont come through his program since he started at Washington in 1995. Perez, of West Lawn, said he's had at least 20 players earn college scholarships. One of them is Miranda's older nephew, Gabriel Martinez Jr., a freshman midfielder for the UIC Flames.
Hundreds of others, Perez said, have graduated and attended four-year schools without suiting up for a collegiate team.
Perez, also a math teacher at Washington and an Illinois-Chicago graduate, said he considers soccer "an antidote" to East Side's potential pitfalls.
"Soccer has kept the players grounded in school," Perez, 46, said. "I'm extremely confident at this time next year, my seniors will be in college."
By this time next week, Perez and the Patriots would like to have the title of "state champions" attached to them. The school has never won a boys soccer state championship, but Perez said this particular squad has "unbelievable chemistry."
That may be in part because so many of the Patriots, who are almost all from East Side, grew up together. Their cohesion began as 5- and 6-year-olds, playing "street soccer," where they gathered in alleys and kicked balls into goals made of garbage cans resting on their sides.
Aupont said he once saw a man shot in his arm and back at Wolfe Park while he and others were on the pitch. Junior midfielder Brian Romo said gangs always can be seen at Calumet Park, where the Patriots play their home games, but usually keep their distance from the soccer team.
"The area we live in is basically gangs and their rivals, and it's survival of the fittest," said Romo, 18, of East Side. "They don't mess with me and my teammates, but you just have to be careful."
Having Big 'Gols!'
Perez said his biggest challenge once athletes reach high school is teaching them the "academic" way to play soccer and eliminating the "street game." In the latter format, players admitted they lacked offensive sets and frequently yelled and swore at referees.
"It's what we were exposed to when we're young, and we all had bad habits," Aupont said.
Aupont said the Patriots go into every game now feeling they have to be on their best behavior because "we have to kind of win over the referees, too." They also are extremely disciplined in implementing their 3-5-2 system (three defenders, five midfielders and two forwards), which stresses ball control and dominating the game's tempo.
Perez considers his players excellent communicators, and the language of choice on the field is always Spanish.
They've been yelling "Gol!" often this postseason, as the Patriots have outscored opponents 16-3 in four IHSA games, including Saturday's 4-0 drubbing of host Lincoln-Way West in the sectional final.
Washington is carrying a chip on its shoulder heading into the super-sectional. Despite having only one regular-season loss, the Patriots were seeded fourth in their sectional. Perez also said his players also are used to facing programs with fancier uniforms and more finances in the athletic department coffers.
"Our philosophy is we may not look as good as some of our opponents do, but we just want to play good," Perez said.
Perez all but guaranteed a win Tuesday, saying: "Without sounding overconfident, I believe the boys have already won. All the mental preparation that we've gone through leads me to believe that this is a done deal if we just go out and treat this like any other soccer game."
Llamas said it's an honor knowing the Patriots are three victories from a state championship.
He also stressed he wants three more chances to take the field with his "soccer family."