tampabay.com

Spartan ace's focus on flawlessness

Perfectionist mind-set tends to work for Leto graduate Sergio Perez, now a top talent for UT.

By DAVID NORRIE
Published March 29, 2006


TAMPA - Perfection is a goal virtually every athlete strives for but few obtain. In the case of University of Tampa pitcher Sergio Perez, the ambition to be flawless can be to a fault. A tiny imperfection in an otherwise sound composition of mind and body.

His 6-foot-3, 225-pound body possesses an arm capable of hurling 93-mph fastballs. While at Leto High, he was a member of the National Honor Society, Beta Honor Society and the Spanish Honor Society. But heading into this, his junior season at UT, he and pitching coach Sam Militello focused on making one correction - it's okay to make mistakes.

"He's an emotional guy and that can play against him sometimes," Militello said. "It's a long season and you have to control your emotions, carry the good to the next outing and forget about the bad."

Certainly there are worse character traits than being a perfectionist. Perez knows it has somewhat hindered his potential in past seasons, yet it remains a part of his upbringing he is proud of and attributes to his success. The second son of Cuban immigrants, his father Gilberto Sr. and mother Flora raised him and his brother to adhere to what he calls "traditional values and hard work."

Teammates from the time they registered in Northwest Little League, Perez and Gilberto Jr., just 10 months older, shared a close bond. By the time they entered Leto, each excelled sports, Sergio in baseball and Gilberto Jr. in football. Performing at their best was a creed they would always carry with them, in sports as well as academics.

Because of their athletic ability, Perez says he and his brother frequently were encouraged to transfer to other high schools with storied histories of winning teams and state championships. But remaining true to their school and their community took precedence.

"People said we'd be so much better off," said Perez, who got the nod as the Falcons' starting pitcher as a freshman and was named the team's Pitcher of the Year three times. "But we felt very loyal to our high school and didn't go to the private schools. Our parents made sure we were on top of our studies, and my brother and I always had a goal to earn scholarships."

An honor student as well, the 6-foot-3, 275-pound Gilberto Jr. earned an appointment to the Air Force Academy after his senior year in 2002 and now plays defensive end for, ironically, the Falcons. A year later, Perez led the Leto Falcons to the Class 4A, District 10 baseball championship and became one of the county's most highly recruited baseball players. He says he chose UT because of its tradition and coach Joe Urso.

"It was a big challenge to get him because I was going up against Division I schools," Urso said. "But Sam had seen him pitch and said "Joe, that's the guy I want.' So we made him our No. 1 recruit and went after him"

It didn't take long for that recruiting effort to pay dividends. Perez immediately moved into the Spartans rotation and won his first seven starts as a freshman. He moved into the No. 1 spot his sophomore season, going 9-4 with 81 strikeouts.

With a realistic opportunity to compete for a national championship this season, he knew he would have to step up as a team leader while elevating his game. An offseason dedicated to working on his composure and trying to shed his perfectionist ways seemed to be working, seeing him off to a 3-1 start.

But on March 17, with the No. 4 Spartans riding an 18-game win streak into their game against Barry University, Perez just couldn't help it. He was perfect.

Twenty-nine batters faced.

Fifteen strikeouts.

Nine innings.

Zero hits.

The Spartans won 12-0 and Perez walked away with the first no-hitter for UT since Mike Valdes did it against Oakland University in 1996.

"I just had everything going right for me," he said. "My arm felt good and I was hitting my spots. In the sixth, seventh and eighth innings I was on cruise control and by the ninth I was just running on pure adrenaline. My parents were in the stands to see it and my mom was text messaging my brother in Colorado Springs every inning."

While his personal triumph was the highlight of his collegiate career thus far, Perez hopes a national championship ring soon will overshadow it.

But for one magical game, his pursuit of perfection was achieved.