Consistency key for Walton girls

ajc.com

Raiders ‘unbeatable’ at times, coach said

Walton Raiders coach Amanda Ryan has a philosophy when it comes to the regular season, and it’s that there’s no such thing as losing in the regular season. It’s an attitude that’s made the Raiders one of the best programs of the GHSA championship era.

“Losing doesn’t happen until the playoffs,” said Ryan, in her 19th season with the Raiders and 22nd overall. “If you lose in the playoffs, your season is over. Until then, I don’t see it as losing, only learning.”

The Raiders (10-4), are ranked No. 2 in 6A-7A with four regular season games left, starting Saturday at home against St. Mary’s Episcopal of Memphis, ranked No. 10 overall in Tennessee, according to MaxPreps. They have one remaining Area 4 game against Kell, and a win there would clinch the No. 1 seed.

The Raiders already beat another Area 4 challenger, No. 5 Lassiter, 13-6 on March 10. That, along with a 17-12 over IMG Academy — ranked No. 10 overall in Florida — on March 26, were two of the team’s signature wins.

“Lassiter is always a point of focus for the community,” Ryan said. “It’s a big rivalry, and that win put us in position to be the No. 1 seed. IMG was a big deal because we’d never played them, and for that school and its reputation for being an academy for athletes, to beat them made the kids feel pretty good about it.

“Me, personally, I don’t make much out of anything until the playoffs.”

Should the Raiders wind up with the No. 1 seed, they’d in all likelihood meet the top-ranked Milton Eagles in the semifinals. The Eagles are ranked No. 9 in the country and have won state every season the GHSA has hosted a championship, except for two. One of the Eagles’ non-title seasons came in 2016, when Walton beat them 9-8 in the championship.

Before the Raiders can think about Milton, however, there are other title-contending teams that could give them problems in the tournament, including up-and-coming Creekview, ranked No. 3.

“I don’t know where they came from but they’re playing quite well,” Ryan said.

Walton is led by senior attacker Ava Besson, who, as a Boston College commit, is one of six Raiders set to play at the next level. Besson is also a member of the USA Select U18 team, joining in the fall as the only player from the South, according to USA Lacrosse Magazine. Junior midfielder Ashlyn Stuckey’s speed and play off the draw have been critical for the Raiders, Ryan said. Senior goalkeeper Emma Calhoun is committed to Winthrop.

The Raiders’ losses — or learning opportunities — came at the hands of some of Florida and Georgia’s best teams: No. 4 Bartram Trail (St. Johns) and No. 6 Episcopal School of Jacksonville — both of Florida — and No. 1 Milton and 1A-5A’s No. 1 Blessed Trinity.

Ryan has used those losses and other points in the season to work on being more proactive on the defensive end. Offensively, she’s happy with how Besson has gelled with the rest of the team. Though she is a senior, this is her first full season after injuries derailed her freshman and junior campaigns, with the pandemic wiping out her sophomore season.

The Raiders share the school’s only turf practice field with the boys lacrosse team and both soccer teams, which led to a 5:30 a.m. start time for Wednesday practices. One area where the program has made notable strides is weight training, increasing the number of workout sessions to three in the offseason, and two during the season.

“We’re focusing on weight room now more than we ever have,” Ryan said. “It’s really helped with our explosiveness.”

As the season winds down, consistency is the key for Ryan.

“That’s our biggest issue,” she said. “In every practice, every game we’ll see glimmers of greatness, but we have difficulty replicating that on the daily. We need to play like we did against IMG and Lassiter every time.”

If the Raiders are playing consistently well heading into the playoffs, a second state title isn’t out of the question.

“When this group is in the zone — or whichever phrase you want to use — they’re unbeatable,” Ryan said. “It’s a matter of staying in that place, mentally. It’s such a cliche thing to say, but it’s the truth.”