Gainesville boys soccer happy to be playing state championship at home
Class AAA state championship
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: City Park Stadium
All of Gainesville senior Charlie Bryant’s friends know that he plays on the varsity Red Elephants soccer team.
But, he said, a number had just assumed over the years that, as the “nerdy kid,” he probably didn’t play much.
“It’s funny, most of my friends at school do not realize that I’m actually good at soccer,” Bryant said. “But when I can convince them to come to the games they say, ‘hey, you actually play a lot.’”
Bryant is certainly smart — his unweighted GPA is 4.8214 and he turned down offers from a number of Ivy League schools to attend Georgia Tech on a full academic scholarship — but he is also a key member of the second-ranked Red Elephants (19-1-1) as they prepare to play for a second state title in three years at 7 p.m. Saturday against No. 1 Woodward Academy (17-3-1) at City Park Stadium in Gainesville.
If his friends came to see him play in the 2-1 semifinal win over St. Pius X on Tuesday, they saw a defensive midfielder who used his height and smarts to head in the equalizer in the second half, his second decisive header in the last three playoff games.
“It’s his size, and it’s his strength, and he’s so intelligent,” said Gainesville coach Rick Howard, who said he’d like to have a picture of the way Bryant contorted to score the goal against St. Pius X.
“He understands body positioning and things like that.”
He also understands math and Latin, his two favorite subjects, and is a self-described NBA junkie.
It’s where he first heard the word Ubuntu, Swahili for togetherness, being used by the Boston Celtics during their 2008 title run. The Red Elephants have adopted that phrase this year as their own, a team that has made it back to the state championship game in large part due to the senior leadership, six of whom start and two more who play part-time up front.
Bryant relishes his role as a team leader, and it shows.
“He’s a leader on and off the field, and a good role model,” said fellow senior Aidan Reising. “He’s a big asset.”
Bryant has been a starter for the Red Elephants since his freshman year when, early into the season, Howard put him in on defense to replace an injured player. His goal was to mark the opposing forward.
“I was a scrawny little thing as a freshman,” the 6-foot-1 Bryant said. “But I did my best and apparently coach thought I must have done an OK job, because I got the gig after that.”
Junior midfielder Douglas Mejia, also a starter on the 2010 team, said he’s only improved since then, and that his move to the midfield has only strengthened the unit. Just like in the classroom, Bryant has put his all into improving on the pitch.
“I do not do anything halfheartedly, and I just devote myself fully to my studies and to my teammates, so I just attack everything I do with joy,” he said. “I love learning just as much as I love playing soccer.”
He said he loves how soccer is like a global language, and the camaraderie that comes with being on a team. It’s why he’s been a regular on the pitch ever since he could first get in uniform at the age of 4.
Except for a year off to recover from a broken femur at 5, an injury which he said he has clearly recovered well from, he has been playing ever since. By the age of 9 he was playing with the local travel team, the Lanier Sharks, along with many of his current and past Gainesville teammates.
He even remembered a time when he and Reising, as 10-year-olds, went to a soccer camp in town run by the high school team.
“They said, ‘work hard and one day you’ll be out there at City Park playing under the lights,’” Bryant recalled. “And we took it to heart, that was our goal.”
Now the two are key pieces as Gainesville tries to once again beat Woodward Academy for the state title, two years after winning 3-2 in Atlanta.
Bryant relishes the opportunity to play with everything on the line.
“It’s surreal,” he said. “There are very few points in your life where your hard work of the past two years really culminates and hinges on one singular result, it’s a special occasion, either way.
“It’s a chance for much glory or much despair.”