LON sports editor Justin Hubbard discusses LOA's soccer program winning the school's first-ever region championships
I love being proven right.
I’ve documented the numerous occasions when, in my columns, I expressed expectations that didn't pan out the way I anticipated. Oftentimes, I write declarations that seem to do more to jinx the athletes/teams I’m discussing than they do to celebrate their accomplishments.
That is not the case this week so, please, allow me to gloat a little bit. I finally got one right!
This week’s paper is releasing April 25. Coincidentally, that’s exactly one year after I published a column about the Lake Oconee Academy soccer program on our old website.
In that column, I detailed LOA’s boys soccer team’s rough 2018 campaign.
The Titans lost seven of their first eight games. It was a disheartening start, but something changed about midway through.
LOA beat Greene County in penalty kicks on April 3, 2018, and then again, 3-0, one week later. The Titans finished the regular season on a four-game surge, capped off by a last-second, 2-1 win at Social Circle.
I was there to witness three of those games, including the finale, after watching some of the Titans’ early-season defeats. It was clear to me that they had found their way, which prompted the column I wrote a year ago about why I expected big things out of the team in 2019.
And how did LOA follow up last year’s late streak? It won 10 games this season and, in an 11-0 blowout at Crawford County last Tuesday, the Titans clinched the Region 7-A championship in only their third season at the varsity level.
After last Tuesday, the Titans were 14-7-1 since that first win over Greene County in 2018. Three of those losses were in a tournament in Alabama, which saw LOA take on defending champions from bigger classifications.
As I interviewed head coach Julie Brooker and a few of her players last week, I asked what exactly changed during the 2018 regular season.
Brooker came to LOA last year with a couple of state championship softball seasons under her belt. In addition to her softball duties at LOA, she took over the school’s boys soccer team after it underwent multiple coaching changes during its first year of varsity competition.
Devin Phenix, one of the team’s juniors who has played for the program since its inception, said the addition of Brooker and the competitiveness she brings to the table was the key to last year’s notable turnaround.
“She kind of sat us down one day,” Phenix recalled. “We were, like, on a three-game losing streak or something like that. She was like, 'Listen, we've got to step it up.' She said, 'My mentality is a state championship,' because, every year when we come to LOA, we don't think state championship. But she came in here with that state championship mindset because she's been with many different teams like that. We finally got that mindset.”
I wrote last year that LOA’s team always had the talent. With Brooker in the lead backed up by longtime assistant coach Evan Minster (who has played an integral part in bolstering LOA's middle and high school soccer programs), it finally had the coaching – or, at least, the right style of coaching – to take it to the next level. They and the Titans proved it this season.
As I was asking Brooker last Tuesday how it felt to be a region champion, she turned toward her players and yelled, “Region champs!” which of course drew a lot of cheers from the players.
It was an earned moment of celebration for a program that struggled getting off the ground during its first year and a half.
About an hour earlier, I interviewed another excited LOA coach and a group of players about the school’s very first region championship.
LOA’s girls soccer team beat Crawford, too, 3-0, to clinch the region title. Head coach/athletic director Chris Ingle thought back to the not-so-good-old-days when we spoke moments after that game.
“I was here when we were playing JV,” Ingle said. “We got beat up a lot that first year. But, soccer is a passion in our school and in our community and it has come together quickly. We've got some girls who have really bought into our philosophy of defense first and hard work and ethic, and it paid off.”
It’s impressive the Lady Titans fought to the region title this year, considering the talent they lost to graduation. I was sold on the boys’ potential in 2019 because they did not lose any seniors. With the girls, I had some (very minimal) doubts.
The Lady Titans lost the likes of Blake Beeker, Abbey Wendt and 40-goal scorer Meredith Grill, among others. Especially with Grill, it was going to be tough bouncing back from the loss of the 2018 seniors.
But, this year, the Lady Titans found a way to make it work and continue their strong play. As Ingle said, they took a defense-first approach, which helped them win nine games, seven of which were shutouts.
On the offensive side, we saw the likes of Kelli Stevens, Jackie Hernandez and Kirsten Reese take on much more scoring responsibilities with Grill out of the picture. They all came through on numerous occasions. Lizzy Holt got some goals, too, when she wasn’t holding it down as goalkeeper.
LOA’s coaches and players had plenty of reason to celebrate last week. Detractors can make arguments about the fact they only had to beat two other teams in their region following the private-public split, but these teams earned every bit of success they achieved. I would say the same if it was Greene County’s girls and boys in the same situation. (Greene is also in Region 7-A.)
They’re not finished, though.
The Lady Titans get back to action Tuesday as they host Drew Charter in the first round of the Class A state tournament. The Titans play one night later when they host Elite Scholars for a first-round game.
After winning their first-ever region titles, the next step for LOA’s soccer teams is finding playoff success. Hopefully, they will keep playing strong and, next week, I’ll get to report to you about their first-ever playoff wins.
And, of course, I hope they keep proving me right.
Check this week's edition of Lake Oconee News for full coverage of LOA's two wins over Crawford County