The 2008 soccer season begins this week and like in years past, the teams in Region 7-AAA are preparing themselves for the unexpected.
Despite four programs starting the season ranked in the top 15 in the Class AAA state Eurosportscoreboard.com coaches poll, the majority of the coaches feel that this year could be anyone’s year.
"We’re going to see what we saw last year, a very tough region," Chestatee coach Michael Herrin said. "It should be another exciting season and who knows where who will be when the season ends."
The War Eagles, which finished the 2007 season with a 13-6 record, are one of the two boys programs that are ranked in the top 15. Chestatee starts the year with a No. 15 ranking, while West Hall comes in ranked No. 12.
With a 13-4 record in 2007, Herrin believes that the Spartans were the best team not to make it to the state tournament last year, and that West Hall will "do its darndest" to earn a playoff spot this year.
"My kids feel like we were the best team not to make the state tournament last year," West Hall coach Wolfgang Jager said. "It puts a little pressure on them and hopefully they can use that as motivation for this year."
Despite only returning eight players, and only one senior, Jager is confident that the juniors on his roster will be able to get the Spartans into the state tournament."Any of my 11th graders I absolutely need," Jager said. "If we want to get to the state playoffs then I need everyone of them to contribute."
While West Hall is hoping to leap last year’s tournament qualifiers, Chestatee is looking to build on a successful 2007 campaign that saw the team reach the state playoffs for the third consecutive season.
The War Eagles will be led by senior goalkeeper Tyler Esson, but will have to find a replacement for last year’s leading goal scorer, Brandon Byers, who they lost to graduation.
To combat the loss of Byers, Herrin plans to rely on a strong defense anchored by junior David Medina and senior Evan Maag. Senior Clemente Medina could fill the void left by Byers as an attacking midfielder and forward.
"This team has been to the state tournament all three years and they know what it takes to get there," Herrin said.
Joining Chestatee and West Hall as strong teams in the region are reigning Region 7-AAA champion Johnson along with Flowery Branch, North Hall and Lumpkin County.
The Knights are coming off a year in which they had a 13-6 record and made their fourth straight state tournament appearance. Johnson advanced all the way to the Sweet 16 of the Class AAA State Tournament last year before being knocked out by Chamblee High.
Lumpkin County finished 2007 with a 12-3 record and should once again prove to be one of the team’s to beat in subregion 7A-AAA.
The final two teams to watch are North Hall, who was the fourth and final team to reach the state tournament last year with a 9-5-1 record, and Flowery Branch, who looks to rebound from an 8-8 season last year with a strong 2008 campaign.
Girls also equally matched
Five girls programs finished the 2007 soccer season with a winning record, and in 2008 the same thing could very well happen.
Defending region champion North Hall will once again be the team to beat in 2008, as evidenced by its Class AAA No. 10 state ranking to start the year.
The Lady Trojans, who finished 2007 with a 13-5 record and represented Region 7-AAA for the fourth consecutive year during the state tournament, may start the season as the favorite, but with most of the teams being equally talented, North Hall is not guaranteed another title.
Especially not with Gainesville (No. 11 in the preseason ranking) and last year’s two surprise teams, Chestatee and Flowery Branch, ready to improve on successful campaigns in 2007.
"North Hall and Gainesville always put out quality teams," said first-year coach at Flowery Branch Katie Wood. "But we don’t want to overlook anybody especially in Hall County with the rivalries. Anyone can beat anyone on any given day."
Wood, who replaced departed coach Vince Strine, is taking over a talented Lady Falcons team that finished 2007 with a 12-5-2 record and made their first trip to the state tournament.
"Were taking what they did last year and take what I know from that and build from it," Wood said. "We’re changing some of the things we do and trying to make them better, but we’re also using the experience from last year to make sure we have something to build on."
In order to build on the success the Lady Falcons will rely on their three senior co-captains, defender Katie Airhardt, utility player, Jenny Josman and North Georgia signee Delana Thomas.
While those three players will provide the Lady Falcons with leadership, Wood is relying on a well-balanced team to lead Flowery Branch back to the state tournament.
"We have girls that are skilled at defense, midfield and at the forward position," Wood said. "We have good depth too, there are no bench players here. We are solid throughout the lineup."
Like Flowery Branch, the Lady War Eagles of Chestatee were also one of the surprise teams in 2007. Following its first winning season in school history in 2006, Chestatee finished 2007 with a 11-7-1 record and the program’s first ever trip to the state tournament.
The War Eagles might face a difficult task in returning to the playoffs this year, as the team is returning only six players and will carry seven freshmen on the roster.
Two of those freshmen, Sarah Brothers and Sharon Sotelo, are goalkeepers and will be asked to be the last line of a rather inexperienced defense.
"Our biggest question mark is on defense," Chestatee girls coach Mark Dunn said. "We only have two seniors on defense, and we’re going to have to experiment with the freshmen in the back."
According to Dunn, Brothers will start the season as the team’s keeper, and the team’s success will hinge on not only her success, but the rest of the freshmen players.
"It all depends on the freshmen," Dunn said. "They’ll step in pretty quick and they’re going to be tested right away but I am cautiously optimistic."
Like the majority of the sports in Region 7-AAA, the 2008 soccer season should prove to be as competitive and as balanced as the rest. According to one coach, that is a testament to the quality of athletics within the county.
"You have all these Hall County teams that if any of them make the state tournament they will be a good representative of this region," Jager said.