Taking chances and learning to trust: That’s how Gainesville girls soccer coach Mark Wade transformed a team with a habit of coming up short into into a state semifinalist and a region champion for the first time since 2005.
After barely missing the playoffs in 2011, Wade knew the team wasn’t far from being a competitor in Region 8-AAA.
“The way last season ended left a bad taste in their mouth,” Wade said. “They came out with more fight than they did the year before.”
But although Wade felt the Lady Red Elephants had a chance, he also knew that he needed to make some changes.
“I tried to be more patient. I let the girls play through some bad periods,” Wade said. “I challenged the girls. I played some different shapes, and I tried to trust the players more.”
His trust and those challenges changed his team, and that’s why Coach Wade is The Times Girls Soccer Coach of the Year.
“He knew this was a special group. He knew we could do great things if we all wanted to,” said Liza Carpenter, one of three departing seniors.
“He pushes us and he wants us to do really well, but he’s very easy to get along with,” Carpenter said. “He makes the season fun. He makes it exciting.”
His team started the season unranked, but the Lady Red Elephants made a statement in a close and difficult 2-1 loss to state-ranked Carrollton.
At that point, Wade said he felt they could be true contenders for the region title.
When his girls beat West Hall the following week, he knew they were.
By March, the Lady Red Elephants had jumped to No. 7 in the state, and Wade was sure the team wasn’t far from reaching their goal.
Unlike in years past, the team was on the winning side of those close games. Wade said that was something different about this team, “being able to win a close game when you’re not playing your best.”
“You have to win ugly sometimes,” Wade said.
The Lady Red Elephants proved they learned that lesson when they survived an intense rematch against Carrollton 2-1 on penalty kicks in the state quarterfinals.
Although the team lost to Allatoona in the semifinals, the Lady Red Elephants accomplished a lot over the course of the season.
Not only did Wade lead his team to a region title, he also made a significant impact on many of his players.
“He helped me become a better player and person. He taught me to be humble and that it’s not all about me,” Carpenter said. “I loved going to practice. I loved being around him and the team.
“He’s a really fun person to be around, and he’s always thinking about others.”
Wade is excited for the upcoming season, but he knows what a loss it will be losing three outstanding seniors from essential positions.
However, he feels that the incoming freshman class and 15 returning players can provide the talent, work ethic, and experience needed.“I took a chance this year. I had a handful of eighth-grade girls, and we moved them up to the JV team,” Wade said.
“I’m hoping that playing older girls will help them.”If the changes that Wade implemented have the same effect on the upcoming group of girls as they did on this team, success should continue for the Lady Red Elephants.
“I think we’ll be competing for a playoff spot next year,” Wade said.
He can trust that his team is thinking the same thing.