Wildcat Keeper Finds His Place on the Pitch
As one of the finest goalkeepers in the California Collegiate Athletic Association, Chico State’s Damion Lewis is a study in contrast.
Away from the pitch, he expresses his laid-back and fun-loving nature as a DJ. With his Wildcat team, head soccer coach Felipe Restrepo describes Lewis as a leader the players “rally around,” commanding with the same intense focus he adeptly balances with playfulness while coaching a local youth travel soccer team.
And after the criminal justice major graduates in spring 2019, he may pursue a professional soccer career. Or perhaps a job as a firefighter. For now, though, Lewis will continue to add to his status as one of the top net-minders in Chico State history.
“He’s one of the best we’ve had here,” Restrepo said. “He’s a dominant player, and I think he has the best in front of him. He’s just now coming into his own.”
This may be an unsettling notion for CCAA opponents. Lewis’ eight shutouts in 2017 tied for sixth-most on Chico State’s single-season top-10 list. He was rewarded by being recognized as the Conference Defensive Player of the Year and a First-Team All-CCAA selection. He was also named to the Second-Team All-West Region squad.
And to think, Lewis nearly walked away from the game a few years ago.
After starting the season-opening match as a freshman playing for Division I Cal State Northridge, Lewis played only sparingly that year. A combination of injuries, fighting to redshirt his injury-marred season, and inexplicably being excluded from the game the following year left the Miami native wondering if he even wanted to play soccer anymore.
“I was just going to finish school and see what happened from there,” he said.
But when his Northridge roommate and soccer teammate began communicating with the Wildcat coaching staff about transferring to Chico State, it piqued Lewis’ interest. Transcripts were sent, connections were strengthened, and he transferred to the North State.
Upon arrival, Northern California was much different from what Lewis knew or expected.
“I grew up in a city that was all buildings and palm trees,” he chuckled, recalling his initial drive into Chico. “Driving on the freeway coming up here, the closer you get to Chico, you see more land, you run into a couple of farms, and all of a sudden it’s just you and the sun.”
As Lewis settled into life at Chico State, Restrepo faced his own realizations: His new goalkeeper was going to be a work in progress, albeit with tremendous upside.
“When he came here, he was injured, he didn’t look right, the spirit wasn’t right,” Restrepo said. “He wasn’t feeling great about the college experience.”
Assistant coach Len Findlay immediately recognized Lewis possessed the skill set of a Division I goalkeeper. He took him under his wing and worked on recalibrating the basics.
“Len helped me clean up all my bad habits that I had from not being trained for so many years,” Lewis said. “He helped me out a lot and made me a better goalie.”
Findlay pushed Lewis, trained with him every day at practice, worked on his strengths, and shored up his weaknesses. Soon, he had helped his new goalie rediscover his passion for the sport.
“When he came up here, Damion looked to get pushed and challenged in the right way,” Findlay said. “When you have all that talent and you work hard and you’re challenged, it’s going to work out well.”
Lewis’ physical gifts dovetail nicely with elite soccer instincts. Towering at 6-foot-5 with an even longer wingspan and a huge vertical leap, he’s adept at anticipating attacks on goal and simply snares high crosses before the ball can meet an opponent.
“He’s 10 feet in the air, and it’s like, ‘Sorry guys, I’m getting this one,’” said Restrepo, noting that Lewis’ skill to predict attacks gives him a distinct advantage.
“It’s his ability to see the ball as it’s coming, his decision-making, and anticipation on not only where the pieces are on the field but how the ball is being played,” Restrepo said.
Add a stalwart defensive line that consistently ranks near the top of the CCAA in fewest shots allowed per game, and Lewis and the Wildcats are tough to beat.
“Damion will make the big save when the time comes, but he cuts a lot of plays off because he does a good job of coaching his team and setting it up in a way where he’s not having to deal with a whole lot,” Restrepo said.
Since arriving in 2016, he’s started every game he’s played for the Wildcats—now approximately 50 career games. Through Oct. 15, he ranks fourth in Chico State men’s soccer history in career shutouts (19), he is tied for fourth in career victories (27), and is third in career goals against average (0.84).
This season is shaping up to be his finest yet, as he also owns the lowest single-season goals against average by any goalkeeper in Chico State history (0.54).
In his 11 years with Chico State, seven of Restrepo’s former players advanced to the professional ranks, either domestically or internationally. He’s certain that if Lewis is eager and disciplined enough, he can also make the leap.
“He’s a special athlete, and if he puts his mind to it and works toward the next level, there’s no doubt in my mind he’s capable of doing it,” Restrepo said. “That’s the smallest part of him, though. I think the thing that we all get excited about is that he’s an incredible young man.”
Lewis’ experience and personality also translate brilliantly to the sidelines, where he helps coach 11- and 12-year-old boys and girls through Chico United FC.
“I can play around with them and crack jokes with them and they tend to listen more,” Lewis said. “But then I draw the line and say, ‘OK, it’s time to focus if we want to win,’ and they listen, because it’s no fun losing.”
“When you see him in that setting, when you see him in school, and then you see him as a leader on the field and on our team, you can’t help but be warm and fuzzy about it because he hits the values and ethics and the core beliefs that we have in our program: being a man of character and substance and being kind to others,” Restrepo said. “He’s made me a better person and coach.”
As his collegiate playing career winds to a close, Lewis is considering all options. If professional soccer doesn’t pan out, he has a strong interest in becoming a firefighter, using his criminal justice background to serve his community in another way.
For those around him, Lewis has proven he’s an extraordinary individual with the personality to galvanize a collegiate soccer team and invigorate dozens of pre-teen soccer players, while energizing hundreds as a party DJ. They see his future as wide open.
“He’s majoring in criminal justice, he wants to dive back into the community and give back, and he really loves working with kids,” Restrepo said. “Whatever he decides to do, you know he’s going to be really, really good at it.”