By Chris Whitfield
The past two years, Northwest Whitfield High School girls soccer coach Anna Stutts knew her team was good. The problem was the Lady Bruins were playing in a region that was filled with teams a little better than good.
Now, the benefits of playing in that region are showing and the players Stutts has relied on have taken advantage of the experience gained.
The Lady Bruins will play in the state playoffs for the first time in the history of the program today as they travel to Grady for the first round of the Class 4A tournament. Kickoff is set for 5:30 p.m. in Atlanta, and the winner will advance to the second round and play the winner of Columbus-Stephens County next Tuesday.
“We are really happy to be the first girls soccer team to make the playoffs and represent the school,” junior midfielder Courtney Pendergrass said. “It is a good time to be a Bruin right now.”
This spring has been a good season in Tunnel Hill, and Grady figures into the sports picture very heavily this week.
The Bruins baseball team won the Region 7-4A championship and will host Grady in the first round of state on Friday. The boys soccer team hosts the Knights in the first round of the state tournament on Wednesday. The Lady Bruins are the third seed from Region 7-4A and must travel to face the second-seeded Lady Knights of Region 6-4A.
It has been a season of firsts for the Lady Bruins (11-3). They swept area and region rivals Dalton and Southeast Whitfield this year, marking the program’s first win against Dalton. Their only loss in sub-region play during the regular season came against Heritage-Catoosa, the Sub-region 7B-4A champion for the regular season.
Their other loss came against River Ridge in the region semifinals, but Northwest bounced back with a 4-0 win over Cass to claim the No. 3 spot. The 11 wins are also a school record.
The run to the state tournament was something Stutts was waiting on.
“Almost all of our starters are at least two-year starters, and we were playing against Chamblee and Lambert in that region that stretched down to Altanta,” Stutts said. “Even when we went winless against them in 2011, I kept telling the girls they were a good team. It was a great experience playing those teams because it made us so much better.”
Before the season, Stutts had high hopes, but she said the players had even bigger goals.
“We’ve all played together for a while, and we know each other so well, so we thought we would have a good year,” senior defender Krissy Maciejewski said. “It is exciting to be a No. 3 seed and make the playoffs, and we feel we are stronger than a No. 3 seed if we play our best.”
“We felt like we could be good, but after the first few games, I think we realized we could be really good,” she said. “We have the players to back it up.”
Andrea Garcia and Nancy Paz have led the offense for the Lady Bruins, while the defense has played extremely well in front of goalie Gracie Holmes, with Northwest recording eight shutouts this season. Balance, Stutts said, has been important.
“We don’t have any stars on this team,” she said. “They see each other as equals, and they know what each of them brings to the table, and they work off of each other. More importantly, they have fun with each other.”
Senior defender Vanessa Vega said familiarity has been key.
“We all know how to get along with each other, and we each have different skills,” Vega said. “We have played together for a long time. Compared to the other seasons we have had in the past, we know we want a long playoff run.”