When Karlie Lema signed her letter of intent to play soccer for Cal Berkeley on Wednesday, the only people who were disappointed were Division I track and field coaches. Although she hasn’t ruled it out entirely, the Live Oak High senior has pretty much shut the door on playing two sports in college.
“Now I want to focus (all of my energy and efforts) on soccer because I want to go farther in soccer than track,” said Lema, who as a freshman qualified for the CIF State Track and Field Championships in the 100-meter dash while also excelling in the 100 hurdles, long jump and the 200-meter run. “I want to go pro after college and make the (women’s) national team.”
Lema’s signing with Cal was a long time coming. The fleet-footed forward verbally committed as a freshman, knowing Berkeley was where she wanted to spend her college career. Lema happens to be a part of the nation’s top recruiting class according to Top Draw Soccer. Rated as the 36th best player in the nation for the class of 2021, Lema is part of a 14-player class that includes three other players ranked in the top 50 nationally.
“It’s definitely exciting knowing I’m going to a team with great players,” she said.
Lema fell in love with Cal when she attended its soccer camp in July 2016, the summer before her eighth-grade year. Her experience at the weeklong camp prompted her to think, ‘I’m going to play here one day.’ Utilizing blazing speed, a powerful kick and underrated technical skills, Lema has been dominant at the high school level and was competing for a spot on the U.S. 17-and-under national team last spring in Florida before the coronavirus pandemic hit stateside.
Live Oak girls soccer coach Tony Vasquez first met Lema years ago when she started playing on the Orchard Valley club team. He saw firsthand the immense physical skills Lema possessed, her goal sense and overall soccer acumen.
“Whatever college was going to get her was immediately going to get better,” Vasquez said. “She has unbelievable work rate and skill, and at the end of the day, you need players who can put balls in the back of the net.”
Lema credits Vasquez and her Mountain View-Los Altos—one of the top soccer club programs in the state—coach Erin Montoya as being her most influential figures in her soccer career. Vasquez isn’t prone to hyperbole and has given Lema both deserved praise and constructive criticism over the years.
“One of the things I really want Karlie to grow in is to make other players better,” Vasquez said. “That’s one of the things I’ve been talking to her about since I first met her. You don’t really get an opportunity to coach a talent like her. She’s done things on the soccer field I’ve never seen before from a young player, male or female.”
Vasquez has one particular moment seared in his mind, in Lema’s freshman year in a Central Coast Section playoff match. Sprinting at full speed down the right wing, Lema ripped a shot from 35 yards away that went to the upper far left post, leaving those in attendance with their proverbial jaws on the ground.
“It’s one of the most unbelievable shots I’ve ever seen in a game,” Vasquez said. “The great thing is the Cal coach was there to witness it. When the goal went in, I looked at the crowd because I was in disbelief. I looked at the Cal coach and he was floored and in amazement of that shot.”
Lema’s immense talent and love for the sport has endeared herself to young girls locally, many of whom want to be just like her in the coming years. Lema talks to youth soccer teams and players, including Vasquez’s two daughters, who are in the eighth- and sixth-grade, respectively.
“My daughters absolutely look up to her in amazement with the things she can do on the field,” Vasquez said.