Jessi Vaverka did everything she could to make sure she would be with her Buford High teammates when the Lady Wolves’ soccer season started in February.
A shoulder injury sidelined her for five months and caused her to miss the second half of her club season with the Gwinnett Soccer Association’s Elite Club National Level team. But true to her desires, she made it back to play all 19 games for Buford.
“I wanted to be there for my team and lead them to the playoffs,” Vaverka said.
Buford coach Crystal Fowler couldn’t help but be impressed with that kind of tenacity.
“She just worked really hard in physical therapy making sure she wasn’t going to miss those (first games),” Fowler said. “She wanted to lead and make sure everyone saw that she was giving 100 percent.”
Vaverka and the Wolves had reached the state semifinals the previous two seasons and had their eyes set on winning a state title in 2014. After three years of playing stopper because the team needed her there, the senior was back at her natural position of defensive center midfielder.
Buford fell in the second round of the Class AAA playoffs this time around, but the third-year captain led the Wolves to a 15-4 overall record and a Region 7-AAA championship with a 7-0 region mark. The regular-season losses came to Class AA state champ Greater Atlanta Christian, Class AAAAAA top-10 team Walton and Vestavia Hills, Ala. (No. 3 overall team in Alabama), before a second-round postseason loss to eventual state runner-up Blessed Trinity.
En route to Region 7-AAA Player of the Year honors, Vaverka finished the season with eight goals and tied for a team-high of 11 assists. Teammates voted her Buford’s Most Valuable Player.
For her efforts, Vaverka is The Times’ Girls Soccer Player of the Year.
For Fowler, one of the clearest examples of Vaverka’s mindset came in a 7-0 loss to GAC on Feb. 21. With nearly all of the team’s starters either still playing basketball or at a soccer tournament, the shorthanded Wolves trailed 5-0 at the half, and Fowler gave Vaverka the option of coming out of the game. The captain didn’t take her up on the offer.
“I said, ‘If we stop now, they’ll think it’s OK to stop later,’” Vaverka recalled. “I wanted everybody to get the point that we’re not going to lay down even if we’re behind. I think that showed later in the playoffs.”
Vaverka said she’s “probably not the most athletic on the field or the most talented.” But her versatility stood out to her coach.
“It’s not often someone takes the ball from her,” Fowler said. “She’s quick. She’s strong. She gets up in the air well.”
As evidenced by her three years on the back line, Vaverka would do whatever it took to make a positive impact.
“She’s just a team player and will do whatever the team needs,” Fowler said. “She’s a competitor. She just wants to win.”
Vaverka considered her leadership to be more about action than words.
“I definitely lead by example more than anything,” Vaverka said. “If I needed to, I would voice my opinion on something. The team’s not going to listen to it unless I do it first.”
Her favorite memory of her final season was a game when all of the team’s seniors scored a goal.
This fall, Vaverka will continue her career at the next level at the University of North Georgia, where she will get to play alongside good friend and former Flowery Branch player Jacy Ramey in the midfield. Two of her club teammates also will be playing for the Nighthawks.
Vaverka said she’s working on her footwork and shooting from long range to improve her game before the fall. She’s also played some pickup games against boys.
Fowler said Vaverka’s response after the 3-1 playoff loss to Blessed Trinity showed just how much she cared.
“It was very sad when we lost because she apologized like it was her fault. It wasn’t her fault,” Fowler said. “I can’t say enough about her character and heart and desire. She’s been at Buford since she was a little kid. It was her chance to try to get a state title. She was heartbroken.”
While it wasn’t the ending Vaverka would have scripted for her high school career, it won’t be the last image she remembers.
“We didn’t get as far as we wanted to,” Vaverka said. “But I’m going to look back and remember the great memories I had with our team.”
The program she is leaving will surely do the same.
“She’s going to be very difficult for us to replace. She’s played for four years,” Fowler said. “I don’t know how we’re going to feel the gap she’s leaving behind.”