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CHAMPAIGN — Lucas Wood loves to play soccer.

And the Uni High senior also loves to tell stories.

In fact, Wood soon will start attending Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., to study filmmaking. He hasn’t ruled out continuing his soccer career with the Scots’ program, either.

It doesn’t take much for Wood’s two primary passions to converge.

Case in point, his final high school soccer match on April 17 against St. Thomas More.

Wood, dealing with a injured ankle on his dominant right foot, scored in the seventh minute to put the visiting Illineks ahead 1-0 against the rival Sabers.

But STM sophomore Martin Mondala produced the next two goals. And Wood proceeded to miss a penalty kick in the 68th minute, striking the underside of the crossbar.

Here’s where Wood’s storytelling prowess comes in.

“You can see it’s kind of starting to slip away. Time is ticking down. The STM fans are really riled up,” he begins. “And then, in the 79th minute, my friend and teammate Teo Chemla from way outside the box curls in a really deep cross to me, and I’m at about the penalty spot. And I managed to rise up above the defender and head it in the top right corner.

“One of the best goals I’ve ever scored. ... We all went wild. Everyone was hugging, and we tied it in the last minute. ... Perfect cinematic end, and I couldn’t have asked for any better way to end my career.”

That tally was Wood’s last of an area-best 25 this season and 72 in his Uni High tenure, ranking him third in team history.

The 2021 News-Gazette All-Area boys’ soccer Player of the Year consistently created exciting stories on the pitch. He began with a six-goal effort in his second high school match and ended with the aforementioned last-minute header.

★ ★ ★

Wood’s penchant for producing frequent and timely goals spoke to his desire to become both a dominant soccer athlete and effective storyteller.

“Soccer is a form of theater,” he said Wednesday while sitting next to the Roger Ebert statue in front of Champaign’s Virginia Theatre. “I’ve just always been focused on achieving those sort of flashy stats and achievements, just because that’s sort of my personality.”

Wood’s athletic career began much differently. With him opting to pick up a book over participating in sports.

That’s a credit to parents Gillen and Nancy, a current and former English professor, respectively. But Gillen, a native of Australia who currently works at the University of Illinois, also holds sufficient interest in athletics.

Specifically Australian rules football, cricket and tennis.

“I had a passing knowledge of soccer because Australia still has close connections to England,” Gillen said. “Urbana Park District, kicking the dew at 8 in the morning — that’s where (Lucas’) journey started. ... With soccer, I assumed I’d be spending time on the sideline and Lucas would be put in the hands of capable coaches. But the other American fathers knew less about soccer than I did.”

That’s how, beginning when Lucas was a second-grader, Gillen wound up coaching his son’s earliest soccer seasons.

“Soccer was always the number one passion for Lucas, and he showed a lot of aptitude early on,” Gillen said. “In particular, his love of scoring goals.”

Lucas isn’t sure when he became a player to be watched out for by opposing teams. But he does know his final preteen years included him seeking soccer opportunities outside the park district scene.

“From then on, I’ve been more focused on being a good player,” Lucas said, “and I think that’s when I started to become a good player.”

One interesting note in Lucas’ life is that he spent two separate years living and going to school in his father’s country of birth.

That afforded Lucas the opportunity to play Australian rules football, which he said might have actually improved his soccer abilities. The mission of Australian rules football is to kick an oval ball through two goal posts, though there’s much more hands-based contact with the ball than in soccer, and more physicality permitted.

“It’s on a big, grassy field like soccer is, there are goals on either side and it’s played 18 versus 18,” Lucas said. “Working on that sort of level, when you have 36 moving pieces on the field, it makes it a lot easier when you’re just dealing with 22 (in soccer).”

Gillen noticed a change in Lucas’ soccer-related demeanor after one of those Australia stints.

“We spent a year in Australia when Lucas was about 11 or 12. When he came back, it was clear he was more serious about soccer than I’d realized,” Gillen said. “He played for the local club team (Illinois Futbol Club), but also I began driving him up to Rockford in Chicago for the ODP (Olympic Development Program). And the second year he ... represented Illinois at the U17 level and was starter at right forward.

“It was at that time we realized Lucas’ soccer abilities, they do stand out.”

★ ★ ★

While it took Lucas some time to become immersed in sports, the same couldn’t be said for film and performance art.

“One of my earliest memories of movies with Lucas was when he was tiny — 2 or 3 years old — and his favorite movie was ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ with Gene Kelly,” Gillen said. “When he couldn’t sleep, I found myself watching ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ with Lucas at 3 a.m. He couldn’t quite handle the title, so he called it Dancing Man.”

Lucas confirms this 1952 classic was and still is one of his favorite films. He assumes that was the case early on because “the songs were fun and it’s a colorful film,” versus his current appreciation for it that’s based upon “its amazing cinematic nature.”

But one particular scene caused a significantly negative reaction in the younger Lucas.

“A woman gets hit with a pie in her face, and I would panic every time that happened,” Lucas said. “It would freak me out. My parents would have to fast-forward. ... It sounds kind of weird, but I think it speaks to how deeply I am affected by stories, even a fictional thing in a film.”

Another of Lucas’ older favorite movies is the 1953 film “Roman Holiday” with Audrey Hepburn. On the modern side, Lucas is drawn to the work of Quentin Tarantino, Jordan Peele and Wes Anderson.

Gillen said one of the first films he and Nancy showed Lucas was the 1959 picture “North by Northwest.” The Alfred Hitchcock flick features a scene in which a crop duster dive-bombs star Cary Grant in an Illinois cornfield.

“My parents are always game to watch old movies with me,” Lucas said. “A lot of my friends will tell you I convince them to sit down and watch a movie with me all the time, and I think they found that they really do enjoy some of these older movies.”

★ ★ ★

Lucas has spent ample time at Virginia Theatre, as well. He’s not even certain when he first saw a show there, estimating it was at age 4 or 5.

The performance he first recalls witnessing at the downtown Champaign establishment was one involving his kindergarten teacher.

“It might’ve been ‘Cat in the Hat’ or something like that,” Lucas said. “The other kids are crawling all over the seats, throwing popcorn around — which is fine; they’re just enjoying themselves. But I was always locked in. Even as someone who’s never had a super long attention span, I’ve always found myself captivated by stories.”

Lucas also watched his sister, Clara, perform ballet at the Virginia. Lucas appreciates the facility’s sights, sounds and even smells, as they remind him of the concept of “putting on a show.”

“Which is something I’ve always loved,” Lucas said. “I love that whole concept at any theater, but the Virginia’s probably the one that’s most special to me.”

One of Lucas’ main concerns these days is a very new film. One of his own creation that bears the working title “Days and Nights.”

Lucas said he wrote an eight-page script for his first-ever film about nine months ago. Fittingly, it touches upon issues experienced by many young adults during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a very personal story for me,” Lucas said. “It stars a couple of teenagers going to school, and it revolves around mostly issues with mental health and stuff like that.”

Lucas recruited his girlfriend and some of his Uni High classmates as both cast and film crew — Gillen said the film’s budget is “precisely zero” — then shot the roughly eight-minute picture over the course of five or six days, filming between two and four hours each day. Lucas used a single camera rented from the Uni High library and some lights lying around his home.

“I’m in the process of editing right now. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get into a few showcases or high school movie festivals,” Lucas said. “It’s not a masterpiece — it’s not ‘Casablanca’ — but I think I and everyone else involved has done a good job and we all worked hard, so I think it’ll come out well.”

★ ★ ★

Lucas has a plan in place for the next several years of his life as it pertains to filmmaking. He aims to attend Macalester College for four years before moving on to Los Angeles and trying to make it in the film industry.

“To film is an expensive and time-consuming hobby and profession,” Lucas said. “To be able to take my own work and think about it in the context of other work that I’ve seen is something I think I’ll find very rewarding.”

Soccer may or may not be part of Lucas’ college life. Regardless, he’s already carrying numerous meaningful memories from his high school career.

Uni High coach Joe Krehbiel took over the Illineks before Lucas’ junior year, previously spending one season on the staff under former head coach Phil Anders.

“I remember one of the first conversations we had when I knew I was going to be head coach,” Krehbiel said. “I just told him I trusted whatever direction he wants to take the team, and I would support him.”

A strong statement to make to a high school athlete.

“It’s pretty special, for sure,” Krehbiel said. “These guys know how to win and how to succeed at something like soccer. I’m providing the framework and guidance when they need help.”

★ ★ ★

Lucas played with some small-school soccer stars at Uni High.

Rahi and Omeed Miraftab-Salo were All-Area first-teamers as seniors when Wood was a freshman. Albert Lee cracked the 2019 first team as an Illineks senior, and Brandon van der Donk was voted that Uni High team’s most valuable player.

But only Lucas and Panos Voulgaris, who went on to compete at the University of Chicago, can claim to be Illineks who were named N-G All-Area Player of the Year. Voulgaris was the 2015 honoree.

“I hope people remember that about me,” Lucas said. “I’m completely content with the way my career’s ended and come through.”

Lucas’ Player of the Year push could’ve been derailed, however, during Uni High’s 5-4 loss to Normal Calvary on March 29.

In that East Central Illinois Conference matchup, Lucas said he suffered a “second-degree ankle sprain.” Assuming he’s referring to a Grade 2 sprain, that includes partial tearing of the ligament and moderate tenderness and swelling, according to the medical website OrthoInfo. Lucas said his right ankle still isn’t 100 percent healthy.

Lucas hobbled through the Illineks’ next two matches, including a 9-2 loss to Champaign Central in which he scored both goals, before sitting out three matches. Uni High lost the first of those three, 4-2 to Newton, to fall to 4-5 overall.

Were this a movie, the Illineks would rally — perhaps around a returning Lucas — to cap their schedule with a rousing success.

Or, perhaps, in real life, as well.

“There was definitely a triumph over adversity narrative in the Uni High season and Lucas’ season,” Gillen said. “Almost like a movie unto itself.”

After the Newton loss, the Illineks went on a seven-match run without a defeat to end their season. Lucas was back on the pitch for the final five matches.

“It was a hard period for me when I was on the sidelines. I hate being on the sidelines,” Lucas said. “I hate watching a sport and not playing it. It was really tough for me. But once I got back and my teammates welcomed me back with open arms, we got right back to winning.”

★ ★ ★

Lucas’ return coincided with a 6-1 revenge win against Normal Calvary on April 8. A draw with Illini Prairie Conference-champion Monticello and victories versus Warrensburg-Latham and Judah Christian followed.

Lucas’ injury actually resulted in him getting to test something he’d worked on when IHSA soccer was delayed by the pandemic.

“I started scoring a lot more with my head,” Lucas said. “I think I scored four headers in the season.”

Which rounds back to the season-ending STM match, and Lucas’ final high school goal entering the net courtesy his head.

“It was a really special moment,” Krehbiel said. “His legacy is he’s a goal scorer. He’s a leader of his team and a pure goal scorer. He has the confidence to handle those high-pressure moments and lead his team when they needed him.”

That falls in line with how Lucas said he hopes to be remembered by Illineks soccer athletes in the coming years.

“When they think of someone who could score a goal in a crucial moment,” Lucas said, “I hope that they think of me.”

Colin Likas covers Illinois football and high school sports at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at clikas@news-gazette.com, or on Twitter at @clikasNG.

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Colin Likas covers Illinois football and high school sports at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).

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