By Jonathan Deal
The journey for the Athens girls soccer program over the past decade is nothing short of remarkable.
Since making the state soccer tournament for the first time in 2007, the Golden Eagles can’t get enough of it. The team has made an appearance in the 5A tournament for seven consecutive years, finally winning it all on Saturday.
The progress has been slow, but steady, coming closer every year to hoisting the school’s first Blue Map for soccer.
After losing by at least two goals in their first four appearances in the state semifinals, the Golden Eagles made progress in 2011 by taking the eventual champion, Spanish Fort, to a shootout.
Last year, Athens broke down that semifinal hurdle and beat Briarwood 5-2, only to lose in the closing minutes of the of the 5A final to Chelsea.
On Saturday, Athens’ steady climb to the top of 5A soccer culminated with a 1-0 victory over St. Paul’s on the same field where they had suffered so many emotional losses in years past.
As the last whistle blew in the 5A girls final, it was tears of joy — not sadness — streaming down the girls’ faces.
Speaking with players after the game, it was clear they were determined not to come so close and see it slip away again. You could see on the field Friday and Saturday at John Hunt Park.
Look no further than the results.
Athens shut out two of the state’s best 5A teams in consecutive days on Alabama soccer’s biggest stage.
It’s a stark contrast from last year’s playoff run in which Athens scored 13 goals in the postseason only to come up just short. This year, it only took six goals for the team to win it all.
Aside from a second-half goal against Fort Payne, the Golden Eagles nearly navigated through the playoffs without conceding a goal.
From the solid central midfield duo of Miranda Huddleston and Klaire Phillips to the speedy center back combination of Mary Claire Breakfield and Emily Poole, Athens stayed compact and organized throughout the state tournament.
Much of the team’s success can be attributed to its senior leadership. While every team has seniors, few have seniors with the type of experience Athens has.
Juli Owens, Grace Morgan, Breakfield and Phillips were competing in their fourth state soccer tournament. It was just another game for them and it showed in the dying minutes of Saturday’s final.
Instead of sitting back and absorbing pressure, Athens attacked St. Paul’s and looked the most likely to score when the clock hit zero.
All that hard work they’ve put in over the past four years paid off Saturday afternoon and it will continue to pay dividends, as they will be remembered as the school’s first state soccer champions.