It's kind of strange not seeing Nando Lucero on the soccer fields around Camp Verde High School this time of year.
Lucero was a mainstay of the Cowboys' boys soccer program for nearly a decade before resigning earlier this year to finish out his duties with the National Forest Service in New Mexico. He moved to the Santa Fe area in March.
Lucero served as a pioneer for Verde Valley youth soccer beginning in the early 1980s. He coached several recreation and club teams, and joined the Camp Verde staff when the school began the sport in the early 1990s. Lucero even spent a few winters directing Mingus Union's JV program.
"When you say Nando Lucero, you're talking about Verde Valley soccer," said Dave Miller, the new Camp Verde varsity boys coach. "He did everything for the kids. He didn't do anything that wasn't good for the kids."
Most in Verde Valley soccer circles would agree with Miller's assessment. Lucero proved a gentle, friendly presence. Though he never played on an organized team as a kid, he has certainly left his mark on plenty of youth and prep squads in the area.
Lucero was an assistant during Camp Verde's 1994-95 state championship campaign. His son, also named Nando, was an all-state player on that squad, as were players like Richard Macphee, Jake Reamer, Chuck Higgins and Ryan Barker. Javier Pineda, the new JV coach at Camp Verde, and Nixon Pineda also played during that time.
During their title quest, the Cowboys knocked off a nationally ranked 5A program and went undefeated.
"In these small towns, you get kids who come up like that," Lucero said during an interview this past winter before he moved away. "That was an excellent season. They knew they were going to win a state championship. They would actually tell us, 'Don't worry, we'll take care of it.'"
The Cowboys proved so strong in 1994 that their top players were split up into different squads for the annual Arizona all-star contest in Payson. Lucero's son scored five goals, and Camp Verde players accounted for seven of the game's 10 scores.
The following season, Lucero took over as head coach, and the Cowboys returned to the state semifinals before falling to Show Low. Lucero's last two teams also enjoyed state playoff berths, with his final squad finishing 14-6-1, 7-2-1 in the region. Show Low knocked them out of last year's state playoffs in the opening round.
Lucero played soccer while in the military, eventually joined a men's league and jumped into coaching when his son first started kicking the ball around at age 4.
"I decided if I was going to help, I had to learn some more," Lucero said.
Players took to his laid back style and non-regimented approach. His philosophy was to equip the kids to make intelligent decisions on the field.
"I try to teach them the options, and then they have to execute it," Lucero said. "You teach them the skills they need to do that – one on one, two on one, give and go.
"I see some coaches who take the headlines and hardly anything is about the kids. That's wrong. It should be about the kids. We had our chance when we were kids."
Lucero coached Nando Jr. until he was a freshman in high school. He then stepped aside to let others have the first word. Nando Jr. eventually earned a scholarship to play at Scottsdale Community College.
Tragically, Lucero's son died in a car wreck in 1997. He fell asleep on his way back to Phoenix after watching Camp Verde play. A few weeks later, Lucero's daughter, Tina, also died in a car accident.
Despite the pain of those two events, Lucero stayed involved with soccer. The circle of friends he gained because of the sport helped pull him and his wife Sandie through. He's still incredibly grateful for their kindness.
"I want to say thank you to the parents who let me coach their children," Lucero said. "That trust was really meaningful to me. That was my reward."
Lucero says he'll likely get into coaching in some form in Santa Fe. He plans on returning to the Verde Valley after he retires with the forest service. An employee for 28 years, he wanted a change of scenery to finish out his career. Since he has family in New Mexico, he felt like that would be the ideal place.
"I'll probably be headed back here in four years," Lucero said.