After breakout season a year ago, the 2023 campaign figures to be both one of transition, and one on the brink of the next level at the same time for Cherokee Bluff’s girls soccer program.
If that sounds a bit confusing, Lady Bears coach Calvin Cook has a simpler way of looking at the situation.
“We only lost three players (from last season’s team), three girls from the original first year of the school (when it opened during the 2018-19 school year),” Cook explained. “They’d been with us four years, and a couple were captains. They’re big losses, but we have a lot of players coming up that have played many minutes before, and are ready to fill those shoes. We should be very good.
“This will be our fifth year, and initially (when we started the program), by the fourth year, we wanted to be contending for championships, and we were able to get that done. So going into the fifth year, we’re moving up to (Class) 4A, … and we’re looking to accomplish the same thing.”
Indeed, there are many good reasons for everyone around the Cherokee Bluff program to believe this year’s team can accomplish that goal as they make the jump up in classification to 4A.
The main reason is the return of numerous players from a team that posted the best season in the program’s brief history with an 18-4 record, the Region 7-3A championship and a run to the Class 3A state semifinals.
Included in that group are four players selected to GeorgiaHighSchoolSoccer.com’s preseason 4A All-State team – junior forward Kaitlin Cook on the first team and honorable mentions in juniors Anna Gessner at midfield and Carson DeMars on defense and senior goalkeeper Avery Fowler.
Kaitlin Cook will definitely be a big returning piece this season to the puzzle after leading the team with 35 goals a year ago.
But she will hardly be alone, with several other offensive weapons also back from a team that scored 132 goals on the season, an average of six goals per game.
“Kaitlin was a big part of (the team’s scoring), but we had about 10 players who scored multiple goals, … including four girls who scored 20 goals,” Calvin Cook said. “Kaitlin will be going for 100 (career) goals this year, so she’s definitely scored a lot the last couple of years.”
The Lady Bears also played some solid defense most of last season, but Calvin Cook is looking at the middle and back parts of the alignment as providing perhaps the most important key this spring.
It’s not that he thinks his defense played poorly, but he knows his team has already demonstrated an ability to put goals up on the scoreboard.
Now it’s time to show it can be a more balanced team, and to that end, he will look to leaders like DeMars, Gessner and Fowler to shore up the defensive unit.
“This year, we’d like to add the defense (to the team strengths),” Calvin Cook said. “We’ve got (several) seniors in the back (row), including our goalkeeper. They’ve had multiple years to mature. They’ve gotten bigger and stronger and faster. They’re just ready to take it to the next level.
“Carson will be playing on the defense, most likely as a captain lead in the defense this year. Then, … Anna is the team leader in the middle at defensive mid(field). She’s really the glue that holds everything together. She’s coming back from a really strong (sophomore) year last year. And (Fowler) is a senior this year. She’s been a starter for four years, and she’s got school records for us in every (goaltending category), and is looking to break some county records this year. … So we’d like to be a complete team.”
As strong as the Lady Bears look for the upcoming season, Calvin Cook also knows that taking the next step won’t come without several challenges, particularly in the newly-revamped Region 8-4A, which includes Hall County foes like East Hall, a state playoff team from a year ago, and North Hall, which features two GeorgiaHighSchoolSoccer.com preseason All-State selections in first team senior defender Paola Alvarez and honorable mention sophomore midfielder Brookelyn Green.
However, teams from outside the county, most notably state 4A semifinalist North Oconee, 4A state quarterfinalists Madison County and 3A playoff team East Forsyth only deepen the pool of contenders in the region.
And that group doesn’t even include a bunch of other top contenders on the state level that Cherokee Bluff aspires to beat.
“North Oconee has lost only one game in the last two years,” Calvin Cook said. “(Defending 4A state champion) Westminster will be in there. Then there’s Lovett and Holy Innocents’ and Pace Academy. So we’ll be looking to beat the likes of some of them going into the playoffs.”
Around the rest of Hall County, Flowery Branch looks to make an impact in Class 5A after moving up from 4A last year, and will be led by junior honorable mention preseason All-State goalkeeper Kate Hill.
Lakeview Academy has moved to GIAA this season, and will look to continue the success it had after making the Class A (Private) state playoffs last year in GHSA, but will have to do so without last year’s Times Girls Athlete of the Year Millie Filson, who graduated and now plays at Georgia.