Austin Stevens has always been ahead of the game on the soccer field.
When he started playing at age 6, Stevens says soccer just came naturally to him, as he instantly became a goal scorer and playmaker.
In middle school, Stevens began to become a star, first for his Charlotte Soccer Academy youth team and later for the North Meck Soccer Club, both of which played in tournaments across the Southeast.
Last year, Stevens burst onto the scene at Lake Norman High, not only making a talented varsity team as a freshman, but also breaking the starting lineup from Day 1 at forward.
"Austin is way beyond his years on the soccer field," said Lake Norman soccer coach Jon Mertes. "He's just a sophomore, but he plays like he's been here for years. He's been a very mature player, both physically and mentally."
Stevens, who turned 17 last week, has lived up to his billing this season as well, leading the Wildcats with 12 assists, while also scoring five goals heading into Nov. 12's fourth-round N.C. playoff game at Asheville Roberson.
Whether he's scoring or passing, Stevens is happy either way.
"I like to do both equally," he said. "Really I just love playing the game, I love everything about it."
Stevens' passion and ability have enabled him to come up big this season, as he had the game-winning assist to Tyler Buckingham in Lake Norman's 1-0 first-round playoff win over Sun Valley and then had a goal in overtime and two assists in the Wildcats' win in penalty kicks in the second round over Olympic.
"From the time I got to Lake Norman, I just wanted to fit in and be one of the guys," Stevens said. "I knew most of the older guys coming in (from club soccer) and so I felt very good about what I could add to the team. I didn't feel like I had to come out and do too much."
Stevens is a key part of a potent Lake Norman offense that boasts five forwards. Seniors Justin Bruno, Joe Marshall, Justin Woodard and Buckingham rotate up top with Stevens and have combined with the team's leading scorer Jordan Chillson as well as fellow midfielders Gabe Franco and Ian Orr to produce 77 goals heading into the Roberson game.
Stevens' main role is on the left flank, where, with his left foot, he provides a combination of size (5-foot-11, 145 pounds), speed and ability that Mertes says he's rarely seen during his time at Lake Norman.
"(Stevens) understands his role on the team and that is to make plays, whether that is passing or scoring," said Mertes. "He can beat two defenders on the flank and get the ball to the middle of the field as well as anyone we've had here, which says a lot."
Mertes said that while all of his forwards have been a little bit different, Stevens has the talent of past Wildcat greats like Matt Fox, the program's all-time leading scorer and Allen Lomax.
Stevens, who also plays for the under-18 North Meck Soccer Club Academy team along with Chillson and Franco, hopes his play on the field will translate into a future in college soccer.
While it's still early in the recruiting process, Stevens says he dreams of one day playing at a school like UNC Wilmington.
For now, Stevens will focus on getting better for Lake Norman and his club team, which will give him access to hundreds of college recruiters at showcase events.
Mertes says Stevens' ability to listen to his coaches and to learn is his biggest asset.
"Austin is probably one of the most coachable players I've ever had," said Mertes. "He has a greater understanding for the game than most players. I think that has a lot to do with how he has responded to the coaching he has gotten throughout his career. I think he's just going to keep getting better and better."