To understand how far and how fast Augusta Prep’s girls soccer team had to come to win its first state championship, coach Tom Norton only needs to think back to his first season at the helm in 2010.
“The big thing I was taken aback with was there’s just no expectation that they’re ever going to beat Westminster,” Norton said of the Cavaliers’ region rival. “The first game at Westminster I remember one of the girls before the game started talking to another girl saying ‘I wonder if we’re going to be able to hold this down to less than 10 goals today.’ I was, ‘Really? That’s your attitude?’ So I knew there were definitely years of frustration getting beat up on.”
Two years later, Augusta Prep’s girls swept Westminster in two regular season games only to lose a heartbreaker to their rival in the Cavaliers’ first state championship appearance.
On Saturday, however, Augusta Prep capped an unbeaten (15-0-1) season with a 2-0 victory over perennial power Stratford in the GISA Class AAA championship at Mount de Sales Academy in Macon, Ga. Cheering them on from the stands were the Westminster boys, who completed an Augusta-area championship sweep immediately after with their own 2-0 win over Stratford.
Norton and his senior-free girls team made a dramatic mental progression since worrying about getting blown out. After losing in the state semifinals last year to Stratford, a title was the primary focus from day one this season.
“Honestly I think they came in this year believing they could win the state championship,” Norton said. “This is the first team I’ve really talked about it with in preseason. They were pretty focused in on that and played like it and trained like it pretty much most of the year.”
Despite no seniors, Augusta Prep fielded its most experienced team to date with a squad stacked with club players and a handful of holdovers from the runner-up team in 2012, including leading scorer Caroline Smith, a junior striker who scored both goals in the championship game.
The only question mark was in goal, where sophomore Tori Williams stepped in with no experience other than playing basketball.
“She worked every day after practice to get better and made key stops when we needed them,” Norton said of Williams. “Once they realized we had someone who was willing to work and put in time, they felt like we really had a chance.”
That fit in well with Augusta Prep’s ball-control strategy that limited opposing threats.
“That’s really where we excelled in passing and possession and didn’t give other teams a lot of chances to get the ball and score goals on us,” Norton said.
Youthful success bodes well for the future at Augusta Prep.
“We actually have a lot of freshmen and sophomores on the team who are starters so we’re excited for the next several years for sure,” Norton said. “It’s been a good progression. We’ve won the region the last three years and kind of getting over the hump, that was a big thing.”
While Augusta Prep’s girls delivered a breakthrough, Westminster’s boys returned to prominence after not winning state titles since 2004 and ’06.
“This group of guys really came together and at the end of it all I felt like we were the best team,” said Wildcats coach Mike Freace. “Maybe not the most talented overall, but the best team that played together.”
Westminster (17-2) was blessed with four senior starters including assist leader Michael Montesclaros and top scorer Joe Coleman, who netted both goals in the championship. But Freace, too, had a heavy dose of young talent including four freshmen and one eighth grader starting.
“We’ve definitely set a good foundation for the future with those guys,” Freace said. “We’ll be competitive for a number of years, which is nice.”
Winning a title only raises future expectations. “It adds pressure,” Freace said.
The significance of Augusta teams winning the girls and boys titles in the same year against a Macon powerhouse in its own backyard is huge. Stratford’s girls (14) and boys (11) have collected 25 combined state titles since 1990. Its Macon rival, Mount de Sales, has eight of its own since 1991.
Norton and Freace – who both coach in the Augusta Arsenal Soccer Club – believe that Augusta doesn’t take a back seat to Macon. With Greenbrier boys reaching the GHSA Class AAAAA semifinals and recent state titles at Aquinas and Richmond Academy, the local soccer scene is healthy.
“The difference in the two (areas) is it seems like the public high schools in this area are so highly thought of that a lot of the soccer players go to those schools as well as private schools,” Norton said. “In Macon I’m under the impression that a lot of the top players go to private schools and they’re much larger.”
Freace agreed: “Top to bottom we probably have more talent in the CSRA, it’s just more spread out.”
This season may signal a historic shift, with all the private soccer championship power concentrated in Augusta.