Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Greater Atlanta Christian soccer player Max Gomas who is one of the Spartans best players will be playing soccer for Emory next season.
No one is going to pretend Max Gomas was a star from the start.
It's what makes his rise to the upper echelon of soccer players in Gwinnett County all the more compelling.
Gomas was not good when he began playing for real in seventh grade.
He'll tell you. So will Greater Atlanta Christian head coach Thom Jacquet.
"He'd never played," Jacquet said. "He couldn't do anything. He couldn't juggle the ball one time. We had a little contest. He was dead last.
"All you had to do was drop the ball on your foot, you get one. Then the second one was like a mystery to him."
Jacquet can say that with a laugh now. Gomas has come from there and made himself into a Daily Post Super Six selection who is headed to Emory next year on scholarship.
He has talent, make no mistake. But most of the reason he's come so far has been because of hard work.
The next time Jacquet held that juggling contest at practice, Gomas was not last. He was first.
"Every day you'd see him in the quad, juggling, dribbling," Jacquet said.
Gomas, an incredibly likable personality, has that competitive drive that can't be taught.
"When I was out there with the team, I didn't want to be the worst kid on the field," he said. "So I was really driven."
It showed by the time he got to eighth grade. But he recognizes the distinction between some magical transformation and what really happened.
"Things didn't get better for me, I made them better," Gomas said. "I worked hard. In seventh grade, I would sit the bench. In eighth grade, I was a completely different player."
Still in middle school, he made things better by getting up early before school and jogging.
"I knew being fit was really important," Gomas said. "Then I would always have a ball at my feet in the house. If I'm watching TV or whatever. And it wouldn't even have to be a soccer ball, it could be like a tennis ball."
Some household items may or may not have been sacrificed to his work ethic.
"And then, whenever I got the chance to play, I played," Gomas said. "Wherever it is.
"I have a park near my house, Briscoe Park. I would go there every day during the summer. I would jog there -- it's like two miles from my house, so I got a little cardio in -- and played. It was all grown men, mostly guys 30 or older. That really helped me physically."
At 14, Gomas was playing on a U-19 rec team.
"That was my first team and I felt like I was a leader on that team," he said.
But the real moment of clarity came when he made a Region 3 Premier League team, skipping Classic I and II levels.
"When I tried out one time and made the team, that's when I knew all my hard work, it's paying off," Gomas said.
Gomas didn't start regularly as a ninth-grader, but Jacquet could see, too, the dividends.
"By about the time he was a freshman, you could tell he was going to be a good player," Jacquet said. "He had the speed and the strength and his game was starting to come together.
"I just remember watching him in practice, thinking 'He's developing.' You could see things. And he had such desire to be good. That was the biggest part of it."
After a strong 2009 class graduated, Gomas stepped up in his first high school season.
"He played a lot and he actually scored some big goals for us," Jacquet said. "Once he got to ninth grade, he was never a guy who was who was on the bench. He was getting his minutes."
Gomas started about half the games as a sophomore and that year applied to Emory, his dream school. His mom, who is from Ukraine, works there as a study abroad advisor.
"That's always been the goal," said Gomas, who speaks three languages. His dad is from the Congo so Gomas knows Russian, French and English.
"My grades are good, but they're not THAT good, for Emory," he said with an engaging grin. "In 10th grade, I emailed them because with club, you're supposed to email colleges and they come watch you play."
They did come."They replied to me and literally they said, 'We don't want you. You don't suit our team,'" Gomas said. "I was really down about that. But I still loved the game so I kept playing and I thought I'd get more offers."
He did, from several D-I and D-III schools. He also became a full-time player for GAC and this summer went to Emory's camp.
"I won an award, MVP for the camp, and they offered me a spot," Gomas said.
He reminded the coach they turned him down two years earlier.
"He was like, 'Yeah, I remember you, but that's not the same guy,'" Gomas said.
One of the things that has always distinguished Gomas is his ability to possess the ball.
"He's unbelievably hard to get the ball away from," Jacquet said. "At his feet, he's so powerful and he's so quick. If you get a touch on it, he's still going to keep the ball."
Gomas scored 18 goals last season and has nine already this year.
"He's a hard combination of skills to defend," Jacquet said. "One-on-one, you're not going to beat him. He's probably going to get by you. And he's got good vision. He'll pass the ball. He's unselfish. But his feet are just incredibly quick."
Gomas knows the next step is waiting for him, he committed to Emory in December, and it's a relief to have the decision made.
"But I need to finish this," he said. "I haven't won a state championship yet. There's a lot to play for still."
GAC is 10-0-2 and ranked No. 1 in the state.
Gomas thinks a title is a legitimate goal.
"Especially with the group of guys we have," he said. "We have only hard workers on the team. It takes one bad apple to ruin the bunch and I don't see any bad apples on the team."
It starts at the top and Gomas is an unquestioned leader for the Spartans.
"You can always count on him," Jacquet said. "His attitude is always 'How can we do better?' Those kind of things are obvious to everybody else. He's got a real strong standing on the team.
"My younger guys love him. My junior high guys look up to him. He comes to their practices sometimes."
The fact that Gomas wasn't a superstar to start with only helps now.
"He always remembered that." Jacquet said. "He always remembered how hard it was to get here. You don't forget the time where you were looking in. You weren't out there and you were wishing you were.
"I think that always motivated him. He always had something to prove. He still does."