They've come a long way, baby.
Fifteen years ago, Augusta barely was a blip on the Georgia girls soccer radar. Today, the Augusta Arsenal soccer club features what has become, arguably, the top girls program in the state outside metro Atlanta.
On Saturday, more than 100 area girls took center stage at Fort Gordon's Barton Field in the opening day of the 16th Annual Augusta Arsenal Spring Shootout. The tournament is one of the largest of its kind in the Southeast, featuring 77 teams from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee.
"We started girls select soccer in 1985 and since then the numbers have gone up sevenfold," said Tommy Garcia, who coached the Arsenal's first girls select team and presently is coach of the Arsenal Gunners under-18 girls squad.
"Probably in the last three years, we've had at least two dozen girls go on to college on athletic and academic scholarships at Division I and II schools. That's incredible, considering where we were when we started not too long ago."
Along with Garcia's U-18 girls team, the Arsenal's U-15 girls, coached by Greenbrier High assistant coach Matt Kolinoski, are the cream of the crop in Augusta-area soccer.
The U-15 team finished fifth overall in the State Cup in Atlanta in December. Despite suffering an upset loss to Charlotte United in its first shootout match Saturday morning, the squad boasts several potential Division I college recruits and could challenge the Atlanta clubs for a state crown a few years down the road.
"If these girls stay together and continue to make progress, they're going to contend for state," Kolinoski said. "They're only going to get better. By the time these guys are seniors in high school, we're going to have some quality Division I players and probably one of the top teams in the state."
Like the Augusta Arsenal boys teams, the girls program begins training for its season in the summer, and trains about 10 months a year, with practices three or four times a week. This is actually their off-season, with the high school girls soccer season about to begin.
Players from Greenbrier, Lakeside, Evans, Augusta Prep, Westminster, Aquinas and North Augusta make up the bulk of the U-18 roster, while the U-15 squad is made up mostly of middle school players, with a few Greenbrier and Lakeside high freshmen and sophomores.
"The impact of select soccer in the high schools is big because you're starting to see the caliber of play up in our area high school programs," Kolinoski said. "Compared to Atlanta schools, it's still day and night, but we're catching up now because of the Arsenal."
Greenbrier senior Amanda Lewis, one of the top players in the state, says she is on the verge of landing a soccer scholarship thanks to the Arsenal program.
Like the Arsenal program's leaders and coaches, Lewis also is amazed by the growth of girls soccer in Augusta.
"I started when I was 10. It was just 20 girls playing back then on a U-17 team, the first Lady Gunners team, and we got waxed," Lewis said. "In a short time, we've gone from one team to five or six girls teams, and the girls teams have gotten to the point where we're very competitive.
"We've got some great coaches like coach Garcia, and they've done a great job teaching us the game," said Lewis, who plays for the Georgia State select team and is in the Olympic development program. "I know if it wasn't for this club, I wouldn't have made it this far."
The first weekend of the Arsenal Spring Shootout continues today, with games beginning at 8 a.m. Fifty-eight boys teams from the same states will compete in the U-10 to U-14 divisions Feb. 10-11. The tournament is free and open to the public.
Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.