SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — It’s instructional, when getting to know Tristan DeLoach, to hear his assessment of his debut in a professional soccer game, which came 10 days shy of his 17th birthday.
“I definitely wanted to do better,” he said of the match between his team, South Georgia Tormenta FC, and host Orlando City B on July 24, 2019. “If I had scored a goal, I probably would have wanted to do better.”
The Savannah native did not score a goal but the midfielder didn’t mess up, either, despite no shortage of nervous energy in playing for about 10 minutes as the Tormenta closed out a 4-1 victory in a USL League One match.
A year later, the nearly 18-year-old DeLoach is back with the Tormenta as it finally opens the 2020 season at 8 p.m. Saturday against the Chattanooga (Tennessee) Red Wolves at Erk Russell Park on the Georgia Southern University campus in Statesboro.
The season was scheduled to start March 28, but, like sports and life everywhere, was impacted by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The next new opening date was July 18 at home against Richmond (Virginia) Kickers, but the match was postponed as a precaution when two individuals on Tormenta’s 40-person covered list (players, coaches, staff) had initial unconfirmed positive test results for COVID-19, the team announced. The individuals have been cleared and the game has been rescheduled for Tuesday.
There is limited seating at home games for spectators, and additional health and safety protocols have been implemented in compliance with government authorities and the league.
DeLoach’s goals — the intangible kind — haven’t changed since he was first interviewed before the original starting date.
“Just try to be as good as I can be,” he said. “Focus on getting better. Competing with the guys and see where it takes me. It’s important to be process oriented. Of course, still have the outcome goals and things like that. At a young age, it’s most important I develop as fast as I can.”
His development as a soccer player has been rapid since he started at age 4. By 6, DeLoach recalled, he was playing up against older children in an 8-and-under division of a local soccer association “because I was tired of messing around with soccer. I wanted to get busy and get to work.”
Raised in football-loving family by his parents John and Robin DeLoach, Tristan was following in the footsteps of his brother Brandon – older by six years – who became a standout soccer and football player at Benedictine.
Tristan DeLoach said he was always trying to keep up with his brother and played basketball with him and his friends. He thought he was headed to a football career at Benedictine, and admitted to feeling burned out by soccer in the seventh grade. But by eighth grade at St. James Catholic School, “something clicked in my head and I couldn’t stop playing (soccer).”
As a freshman at Benedictine, DeLoach helped the Cadets capture the GHSA Class 2A state soccer championship. But he also had a grueling schedule many days, leaving after high school practice to go to Statesboro to train with his Tormenta FC Academy club team. And he put pressure on himself to get straight A’s.
A decision had to be made for his grades and his long-term goals in soccer.
“It’s kind of like you’re out playing with your best friends, so it’s a lot of fun,” DeLoach said of being on the school team, but he gave that up as a sophomore. “You take away some of the social side, hanging out with your friends, to get more of the soccer side, to get a higher level.”
His straightforward goals are to play major college soccer in the Southeast, so he can still be close to home, and, if possible, play as a professional.
“I want to keep as many doors open as possible,” he said. “I want to be a pro soccer player, but I also want to be doctor. I want to have both options open because you never know what can happen.”
DeLoach, who is interested in becoming an orthodontist, wants to make the most of his time and not look back later in life and wonder what if.
“I want to be a good dad, a good husband. I want to be happy in life and not having any regrets when I get older. It’s kind of unrealistic to not wish you did something or did something else, but I want to be satisfied with what I did as a teenager, as a middle-aged person.”
If the rising senior at Benedictine sounds older than 17, well, adults around him have picked up on that as well.
“What a great character person he is,” said Brad Nein, Director of Soccer Operations for Tormenta FC Academy — the pro team’s youth development program for which DeLoach had played for three years. “This opportunity (on a pro team) is really being presented not only because of his soccer skills but because his humbleness, his empathy, his gratitude.”
Nein said DeLoach’s soccer abilities that are immediately apparent to observers include his skill with the ball.
“His ability to beat defenders one on one,” Nein said. “His ability to make the right decision when he has the ball — whether it is to dribble, pass or shoot — when he’s under pressure. That sets him apart from other kids his age. His relentless work ethic. … He’s the hardest worker in any game when he steps on the field.”
Off the field, DeLoach puts in extra effort to improve and strives to be an elite player, Nein said. DeLoach echoed that when he said, “It’s really small details that can make you the best player or (just) an OK player.”
Nein runs a program called TOPSoccer that provides soccer opportunities for children with disabilities. DeLoach regularly helped out when the sessions were offered, and proved to be extremely popular with the participants as a volunteer coach. That also got Nein’s attention.
“You can tell when you have a special kid,” Nein said. “It’s not every 17-year-old is going to give up their Sunday afternoon when they’ve been training all week to come out and do more soccer things. That was the thing that really stuck with me, how important it was to him.”
DeLoach, while a sophomore at Benedictine, was the first player to be promoted out of Tormenta Academy by signing an academy contract in May 2019. He can practice, play and eat with the team but is not compensated and maintains his college eligibility as an amateur. Fellow 17-year-olds and Savannah natives Grant Hampton (a midfielder) and Stephen O’Hearn (a goalkeeper) have since signed academy contracts to make the big club’s roster for 2020.
While playing time is not guaranteed as 22 to 23 players compete during the week for the 18 spots on the game roster — the objective for the teenagers is long-term development for their soccer careers, including their potential futures in Statesboro as pros.
“It’s the experience that he’s getting,” Tormenta head coach John Miglarese said of DeLoach, who was rostered in 2019 with the League One club rather than the Tormenta 2 squad of younger players in USL League Two (dormant this summer because of COVID-19 concerns).
“It’s the day in and day out of training with professionals, and doing the things like yoga and lifting and traveling and all of the details and the routine of being a good professional,” Miglarese continued. “He’s getting the chance to learn that at a very young stage of his career.”
Miglarese talked about a player’s trajectory through the system, moving from the bottom to the top in terms of talent at each stage, and then promoted again, so he is challenged on a daily basis and his “rate of growth” doesn’t slow down. In short, DeLoach was thrown into the deep end with older, more experienced and often bigger and stronger players for whom soccer is their livelihood.
“Very quickly, that’s a sink-or-swim scenario,” Miglarese said. “If he comes across as arrogant or disinterested or entitled, our pro team would eat him alive. But it was the very opposite. He was humble, he was in a beginner’s mind. He worked hard and he played well. He immediately won the respect of our pro guys, and that’s hard to do. That’s really hard to do.”
DeLoach is up for the challenge, even if it means developing a thick skin. He doesn’t want these pros in their 20s, who are each trying to progress in their careers, to go easy on him.
“No, because they wanted me to get better,” DeLoach said in referencing his indoctrination last summer. “It was kind of fun having a little brother around, which is kind of what I was doing. But it’s also when it came to playing on the field, they definitely wanted to push me. If I was messing up, they definitely let me know. It’s not personal or anything. It’s just how it is.”