One after another, holding back tears, Athens players said the same thing after winning the 5A soccer championship Saturday afternoon.
Exactly a year removed from losing to Chelsea in their first state championship appearance, Athens’ players walked off as winners after beating St. Paul’s 1-0 at John Hunt Park.
For Athens seniors, it was their fourth time playing in the state tournament. They were twice denied in the semifinals before losing in the final minutes of last year’s 5A title game. This time, Athens’ seniors were not going to be denied.
“It’s awesome. I’m just so happy,” said senior Grace Morgan. “This is my fourth year being down here. You just want it more and more every year, and then when you finally get it, it feels great.”
In stark contrast to last year’s championship game disappointment in which Athens lost on a late goal, it was Athens that controlled the tempo late into Saturday’s game.
Leading 1-0 for most of the game, Athens never took its foot off the pedal. AHS had 12 shots compared to St. Paul’s 6, including a 9 to 3 advantage in the second half.
“I think it speaks to our composure,” said Athens head coach J.B. Hutchison about Athens’ performance late in the game. “Being in these pressure-type situations before and knowing that we can do this. I attribute that to our schedule this year; playing against some really good schools from around the state.”
Athens players looked just as composed in the dying minutes of the championship game as they did when Ashley Ward scored the game’s only goal in the 16th minute.
Kate Morgan’s corner kick found Ward open on the back post and the sophomore made no mistake with her head from close range.
“We’re so happy right now; Ashley had an awesome header,” said junior Riley Ridgeway, who scored the overtime goal Friday that sent Athens to the title game. “We’ve been wanting this for so long. Everybody was pumped up before the game. We got red (trophy) last year, we weren’t going to leave without the blue (trophy) this year.”
Athens didn’t blink after going up a goal. The Lady Eagles’ organized defense remained in tact throughout the game, allowing few chances from open play. The chances St. Paul’s did create came from set piece opportunities, many with striking distance of the Athens goal.
But for every set piece St. Paul’s sent in, Athens goalie Tiffani Dunaway was there to gobble it up. The sophomore goalie finished 15 saves in the state tournament and was named 5A Girls Tournament most-valuable player.
“I didn’t even know what award they were calling out,” said a surprised Dunaway after receiving the MVP plaque. “I worked so hard, but I have the greatest team in front of me and I couldn’t do it without them. They make me look good and save me so much.”
But it wasn’t just Dunaway who shutout two of the state’s best teams in consecutive games. Athens center back combination of Emily Pool and Mary Claire Breakfield thwarted one attack after another Saturday.
“I’m completely speechless,” said Breakfield. “We have worked so incredibly hard for this and I think we deserve all of this. As my last game, I couldn’t ask for anything better than this.”
After four years of frustrating defeats at the Final 4, Athens senior soccer players can leave as the first class to bring home a state title. For Hutchison, it ended a streak of five consecutive losses at the state tournament.
“Relief, excitement, joy,” said Hutchinson about his emotions after winning’s Friday overtime game. “The girls said at the beginning of the year, ‘We left unfinished business in Huntsville.’ And that’s been the mantra all year.”
On Saturday, it’s safe to say Athens took care of business.