When Julio Martinez announced his decision to step down after nearly 20 years as Laurel’s soccer coach, he had every intention for his word to be final. Sometime after, Laurel’s plans to hire a new face fell through. That’s when Laurel Athletic Director and head football coach Todd Breland approached Martinez with a proposition.
“I was nervous,” said Martinez. “I talked to Coach Breland for a long time before I decided [to come back and help one more year] because I take this school district so seriously. I didn’t want them to think I was playing with them. And I didn’t want the community to feel that I wanted the publicity. It was about the kids and not me.
“I talked to several in the community that is friends of mine and said, ‘hey, we can’t find the kind of person Coach Breland or I was looking for to take over the program as head coach.’ Those people told me that it would be fine if I came back one more year to help. No one would think bad about it.”
So a deal was struck. Martinez agreed to return for one more year, while the search for his replacement continued.
“Coach Breland and I talked so many times [about it],” Martinez said. “Take just the boys, Breland told me. We’ll let someone else take the girls.
“The bond I have with the players, it wasn’t easy to walk away from [the first time]. Even now, with these guys, it’s still hard to walk away from such good human beings.”
The reason Martinez chose to step away in 2018 solely dealt with the issue of family. He wanted to spend more time with his kids, and more time closer to his home in Oak Grove.
“I didn’t want to embarrass the school after saying I was leaving then coming back,” said Martinez. “As I said, it’s not about me; it’s about the school and the players. Coach Breland talked to the kids and told them I was going to stay for one more year.”
Laurel finished 6-9-2 on the season. Its record, though, hides the success it achieved. After missing the playoffs two consecutive years, a third looked enviable. Losses to West Jones, 2-1, and South Jones, 1-0, in Region 5-5A before the Christian break, didn’t leave much hope.
“[Before the Christmas break] we were almost in last place,” said Martinez. “It was a lot of hard work during the Christmas break. We practiced, even though the field wasn’t in the best of shapes [due to the rain]. But these kids sacrificed their holiday to get better. They knew we had too. When you looked at those games, we lost playing well. Our guys knew [things could be better if they tried harder].”
Things did get better. Laurel finished the second round of Region 5-5A play after the break, 2-1, including a 3-1 win over South Jones to earn a playoff spot for the first time in two years. Martinez said a lot of that had to do with the players and some had to do with changing formations.
“The players didn’t want that feeling of missing the playoffs again,” Martinez said. “Two years ago we missed the playoffs by one goal. Last year we lost to South Jones twice, and that put us out. They had those memories on their mind. They sacrificed a lot to be ready for that second round of region play.
“Yes, I did some changes in the formations and strategies, but I didn’t win the games. They did.”
Laurel’s playoff run lasted into the second round, beating Pearl River Central 2-0 in the first round to advance. The Tornadoes fell to West Harrison in the second round, 4-0.
Regardless of how it ended, a lot could be looked back on and be proud of. Laurel had two of its players sign scholarships to play at the next level.
“I was so proud of my guys,” said Martinez. “Not because they got to the playoffs, but because they wanted it and worked for it. And look at how my players [over the years] has gone on from this program to play somewhere else. It was never about me. It was about them.”
What’s next for Martinez?
“I’m trusting God,” said Martinez. “I know God is going to open the right door for me. As of now, I don’t have anything concrete. Only God knows if he has something for me in education or something else.”
Martinez is Sport601’s Powerade Soccer Coach of the Year in Jones County.