High school girls soccer was not immune to the almost complete shutdown of sports across the nation in an attempt to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
The Georgia High School Association recommended last week that all schools suspend spring sports activities until further notice, and Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday ordered the closure of all public elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools in Georgia through the end of the month.
Now soccer coaches and players across the state are dealing with the uncertainty of a season that has been temporarily suspended and might not ever resume.
Perhaps the most prominent interruption was the early halt to Westminster’s drive to become the first girls soccer team in state history to win six consecutive state championships. The Atlanta private school set the record from 2002 to 2006 and tied it last season when it won Class AAA for the fifth straight year.
“I was excited for the team that we had and what I thought we could do,” Westminster coach Clark Meyer said. “We were capable of being really special, being an all-time Westminster great, and that was exciting, but in the big picture it's really not all that important. So I definitely went through a week or two where I was worried about losing time this season and worried about not being able to play soccer and then pretty quickly moved to a point where, as heartbroken as I am for the girls and for us as a team, I also realized that it's maybe the most important of unimportant things. But we are where we are.”
The Wildcats, No. 1 in Class AAA in the most recent Score Atlanta rankings, played what might be their final game of the year on March 10, when they beat previously undefeated North Atlanta to improve to 6-0. Meyer had a chance to talk with his players the following day in what will be their last practice in the foreseeable future.
“It was an opportunity for me to talk about the bigger picture,” Meyer said. “I told them that part of the reason we play sports is that it gives us an opportunity to risk, it gives us an opportunity to face uncertainty, it gives us an opportunity at times to hurt and ultimately gives us an opportunity to build resilience. Otherwise, there's really no justification for the amount of time and effort that we put into high school sports. If we just do it to have fun, if we just do it to glorify ourselves, then that's really not worth the time that we put into it. So I told them that that we should treasure those opportunities to build resilience and then call upon them when the real world puts us in a position to need it.”
Mary Byrne, head coach at Johns Creek, perhaps best summed up the frustration and disappointment about the season’s disruption.
“I am heartbroken for my team due to the current events and the unknown,” said Byrne, whose team is ranked No. 1 in Class AAAAAA and seeking its first state title. “For months I have witnessed these girls giving me more than their best in hopes of eventually reaching the goal of a state title. I have seen them make sacrifices, push the limits, and become one team with one goal in mind. It breaks me up inside to think that there is a chance that they may not get to continue this quest. Most importantly, my heart aches for my seniors as this could be the end of their senior season. That being said, [the suspension of the season] is an unfortunate event, but one I agree with in the end. As much as I want these girls to compete for a state championship, I want them to have a long, bright and happy future ahead of them. One game, practice or even championship is not worth the risk of allowing one of my girls to get sick.”
Another top-ranked team seeking its first state title is Class AAAAA Buford, which is in its first season under coach Megan Hill.
“This being my first year at Buford High School, trying to build a foundation of culture and team cohesion was my biggest priority, and having this interrupt that was a shock,” Hill said. “However, one of the things I try and teach my girls is to control your controllables. This is not in our hands and is uncontrollable. We have to keep people safe. Though we aren’t able to be together physically, our team is in constant contact with each other, which will keep their connection in place for when we can take the field again.”
For Greater Atlanta Christian, ranked No. 3 in Class AAA, simply finding out the news that the season had been brought to a stop presented its own unique challenge.
“When Gov. Kemp made his announcement Thursday evening [recommending school closures], we were in the middle of a region battle against Dawson County,” Spartans coach Tia Graves said. “We were playing the team who beat us last year in overtime and PKs to win our region. Personally, I had been excited for the girls to play in this rivalry match, especially with how strong we had been playing the last two weeks. In the first half, members of the crowd were telling the athletes on the field in the middle of play that school was cancelled, ‘enjoy your last high school game,’ ‘this determines region champs,’ and other phrases that had my girls distracted. When halftime approached, we had the game in our favor 3-0, however, our concentration was off. Keeping the girls focused and winning what was possibly our last soccer activity required grit and determination. After the game, I noticed my phone was flooded with texts and emails. At that moment, I just told the girls that I was proud of the victory, and I would see them tomorrow for a recovery water aerobics session. I had prematurely made practice plans for the upcoming days which would be scratched a few hours later.”
For some coaches, even talking with the players about the uncertainty of the season was difficult, for both emotional and logistical reasons. Here’s a sampling of the reaction from coaches of some of the state’s top programs:
*Scott Luthart, Lambert, ranked No. 2 in Class AAAAAAA: “Of course, there were rumors swirling on the day of our last game [last Thursday], so I tried to squelch some of those rumors until we knew more. I actually wound up having to send a GroupMe message to the team once the county officially announced the shutdown after that game, and I assured them that I would keep them informed as new information became available. I basically told them how much I appreciated them and wished them good health and safety until we meet face to face again.”
*Jeff Becker, North Gwinnett, the defending Class AAAAAAA champion and current No. 1-ranked team: “This wasn't as difficult as it would have been if they hadn't seen the writing on the wall. Other counties had closed school and cancelled extracurricular activities. And literally during our last practice, we got the news that Georgia Soccer cancelled all club activities until April. So we were all pretty sure that we were next.”
*Jesse Bitting, Cambridge, ranked No. 2 in Class AAAAAA: “Given the magnitude of the situation in the country and world right now, our soccer season being put on hold indefinitely seems like such a minor thing, but that is not to say we aren’t saddened and disappointed. The team that we have rostered is certainly a very cohesive and talented team, and I think we could (and still can) have some great success in our region and state. The conversation with the girls happened at our last practice – last Thursday. There were certainly some tears and fear of the unknown, but we know that the decisions being made by GHSA are the right ones and we wholeheartedly support and agree with them. My heart hurts for our seniors, many of whom have played for me for the last three years. I hope that they will have the opportunity to finish out the season.”
*Tess Tvrdy, three-time defending Class AA champion St. Vincent’s Academy: “I’m super disappointed. This season, we have already lost games to the rain, and once the momentum started back we are in a hiatus. I understand the need for the break in the season, to keep us and fans safe, but my competitive brain can't turn off. I want to play and my students want to play. I have eight amazing seniors that want to finish their last high school season, and my heart is breaking for them. … Friday afternoon was somber; the team had questions and there was anxiousness, ‘Is the season over?’ ‘We want to still practice and be together, but is that allowed?’ ‘We are almost done with region games, can they just take it all away from us?’ I gave them the same answer every time, ‘I don't know. We have to wait and hear.’ I did not feel like a great leader in that moment.”
*Joshua Trieste, First Presbyterian, ranked No. 4 in Class A Private: “We have not been able to sit down or discuss this as a team. All communication has come from the school so far, as their education is taking first priority, and that communication is the focus right now. I am also like everyone else, in that I am waiting for any sort of sports update from GHSA that pertains to soccer. I expect a blanket response to spring sports, and I know the players are hoping for good news. I know the players are anxious to get back on the field, but we are all just waiting at this point. News outlets are not relaying a very positive outlook right now, and I know people everywhere are dealing with some very negative situations.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.