Katie Scali knew she had a good team this season, and like any good coach, she made it her job to hide from her team just how good she thought they were.
The Flowery Branch girls soccer team had narrowly missed the playoffs the previous season as a member of Region 7-AAA and were about to embark on a new 8-AAAA region schedule this year.
Scali’s goal was to keep the team on its toes.
“Sometimes, with teams we know well, it becomes a mental game for us and we struggle,” said Scali, in her fourth season as coach. “I knew this region would be tougher for us, but I think we benefitted from not knowing the teams. I tried not to tell them too much about (a given team), and that definitely helped from the players’ aspect.
“Even going into games as a coach, I knew there were teams we could probably handle very easily, but (the players) really didn’t have much of an idea. They don’t (scout) like coaches do, so I just went into each game saying we might be a little bit better than them, but they’re going to play us tough.
“So they never let their guard down.”
Scali’s plan, coupled with the Lady Falcons’ hard play resulted in the first region title in program history. With the No. 1 seed in the Class AAAA state playoffs already locked up, the Lady Falcons (10-6, 8-0 8-AAAA) have just two games left: a road game against Salem (6 p.m., Tuesday) and a home game against Rockdale County for senior night (7 p.m., Thursday).
Also, with their 1-0 road win April 1 against then-No. 7 Heritage (8-4-1), the Lady Falcons cracked the top 10 for the first time this season at No. 10.
“I’m sure (cracking the top 10) means something to the players,” said Scali, “and while it’s nice to be recognized, that’s not the most important thing out our list, for sure.”
What is important is returning to 2009 form. That year, the Lady Falcons reached the Class AAA quarterfinals as a No. 4 seed. The core of this year’s team were freshmen that season, and now, with more experience as juniors, they feel they can match or exceed what they accomplished two seasons ago.
“I think the team we have now is better than what we had my freshman year,” said junior midfielder/defender Cashen Philyaw, one of the team’s captains. “Our defense is the best I’ve seen at Flowery Branch since I’ve been here.
“I hope we can get past the Elite 8, but we have to work extra hard because the teams we’ll be playing are going to be really good.”
The 2009 season and their out-of-region schedule this year should have the Lady Falcons prepared for the postseason. Teams like Parkview, Mill Creek, Johnson and Buford are some of the state’s better teams, and though they lost to them early in the season, all the games were low-scoring and competitive.
Scali said she plans to repeat the strategy she used in 2009 to prepare for the playoffs. Unique to soccer, there is usually a two-week gap between the final regular season game and the state playoffs. A lot of playoff teams use that time to schedule additional exhibition games. However, Scali uses the time to focus on conditioning the players as if it were the preseason to get them in top shape.
“(In 2009) the extra time got us through the first couple of rounds because we were absolutely in better shape than the other team,” Scali said. “We have a lot of the same girls, and they know the work they have to put in now.”
In addition to the conditioning, this year’s team will likely stay in optimal shape thanks to its depth. Scali said she most often rotates every player off the bench into the game, a luxury she’s never had at Flowery Branch. This year’s freshman class are no strangers to winning with the core of juniors, as they formed a nearly unstoppable team at Davis Middle when the freshmen were sixth graders and the juniors were eighth graders.
“It’s basically the same team from middle school,” said junior defender Morgan Glenn. “We had a great time then, and we’re just as strong now and having fun being back together.”
But before the playoffs, the Lady Falcons have one more regular season goal: Finish the season undefeated in 8-AAAA play.
“We’re not going to lighten up our game just because we’ve already clinched the top seed,” Glenn said. “We have to stay on top of our game the whole time if we want to go undefeated in region.
“We can’t get lackadaisical now.”
Adam Krohn is a sports writer for The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/gtimesakrohn.