Prior to 2002, the girls soccer program at North Hall had success, but were never able to compete with some of the more talented teams in the region or the state. All that has changed in just four years.
The Lady Trojans have made the state playoffs three years in a row and began this season ranked No. 10 in Class AAA by Eurosportscoreboard.com. That success is largely because of one man: lay coach, Jerome Samuels.
Along with head coach Paul Brown, Samuels came to North Hall in 2002 to bring his experience and knowledge to the girls at North Hall.
A former member of the Jamaican national team, Samuels began teaching summer camps for North Hall Middle School players during the summer of 2002 and it was during that camp that he first started to teach six girls: Ashley Lackey, Elizabeth Williams, Meredith Clark, Sara Carlton, Jenny Manson and captain Laura Lane, who are all now seniors at North Hall.
His teachings had an immidiate impact.
"Before 2003, Gainesville won 10 region championships in a row," said Samuels, who also played for the Atlanta Silverbacks of the United Soccer Leagues for two years. "Once the girls we started with in 2002 reached high school, they started to compete and now they have won Area 7-AAA two years in a row."
Those girls also credit Samuels for their improvement.
"He has had a major impact on our success," Lane said. "We have a good group of girls, but we wouldn’t be where we are today without him."
Changing the culture
Getting the Lady Trojans to the level they are playing at now didn’t happen overnight. In fact, Samuels had to change multiple facets of the game starting with how the game was actually being played.
"I was the first one on site trying to introduce structure," said Samuels, who also coaches the boys team at Georgia Perimeter College. "There was quite a few girls playing, but there was no structure. The culture of the game had to be changed."
According to Samuels, he started to implement a program that got the players away from just "kicking the ball," to actually working on possessing the ball and making crisp passes."Now when you watch our games the ball hardly ever leaves the ground," Samuels said.
Once the correct structure was in place, Samuels turned his focus to conditioning.
"I find a way to allow kids to be able to play a whole game," Samuels said. "A lot of our gains were made from physical development. If you lack in skill, you can make up with physical abilities."
His conditioning program is intense.
During the preseason, the girls run 100-, 200-, 400-, and 800-yard dashes to improve on speed. Once that portion of the training is complete, the girls hit the weight room, where they work on plyometric training and core stregthening. All of which helps the girls once they step on the field.
"He basically works us as hard as he can," Lane said. "We practice every day except Sunday."
Turning lessons into wins
Teaching the game of soccer to girls at a young age is essesential in their development, according to Samuels. And it is those teachings that has allowed the Lady Trojans to become a perennial powerhouse in Area 7-AAA.
Since 2005, the Lady Trojans have a combined record of 31-17-4, and this year are prepared for their deepest run in the state tournament.
"Barring any injury, we expect to have a really successful season," said Brown, whose team is 1-0-1 this year. "I’ve been really impressed with the girls so far and we are still missing some of our basketball players."
Their two games this year include a win against Class AAAAA Forsyth Central, a team that the Lady Trojans had never beaten, and a tie with Buford (No. 4 in Class AA/A), which has four Division I prospects on its team.
Those two games are a result of all the hard work that Samuels and the Lady Trojans have put in over the years, Samuel said.
"Our players are disciplined," Samuels said. "We focus on fundamentals more than anyone else.
"I don’t care if we lose, we’re going to play the way we need to play," he added. "We stick to us, win, lose or draw."
That mentality, combined with the talent level on the team, has the Lady Trojans poised for another run at an area title.
Along with the experience of the six seniors, North Hall boasts one of the best goalkeepers in the region, Mary Mancin and freshman Tess Patton, who Samuels called "the best player ever to play in Hall County."
"We have a squad that’s comparable to any private school in Atlanta," Samuels said. "This year, assuming we win region, which is our first goal, the second place team out of Atlanta (Region 5-AAA) will struggle to beat us."