Winning a high school soccer championship is difficult. For schools not located in Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile or Montgomery, it’s nearly impossible. Since Alabama High School soccer became sanctioned in 1991, only Decatur, Fort Payne and Guntersville have won state championships in girls soccer from outside Alabama’s four largest cities.
Athens will try to break into that elite group Friday when the Lady Eagles play Briarwood in the Class 5A semifinals at John Hunt Park in Huntsville. It’s not like Athens hasn’t been close. This will be Athens’ sixth consecutive trip to the state tournament.
“The more you get to the final four, the more you know what to expect,” said senior Frances Conway. “Every year it gets a little less stressful. It’s less of a surprise; the noise, the attention, the rush of all of it. But every year I feel like I have a bigger drive to win because it stings every time to get put out.”
Conway has played in the last three state semifinal matches with Athens. She is one of only two seniors on a team that has a 21-1 record, including 15 shutouts. On such a young team, Conway knows her leadership will be paramount Friday.
“We’re also a very young team, so I think that’s going to be an even bigger aspect for the people who have never been,” Conway said. “It is the state playoffs; it’s a whole different ballgame. So we’re trying to stay confident, but not presumptuous and not to get our nerves worked up, the closer we get.”
To get an idea of what Athens has achieved this decade, the Lady Eagles are the only team in the state to make the last six state tournaments in Class 5A. The next closest on the list is Friday’s opponent, Briarwood, who have made five of the last six and won it all two of those years.
“In the past, we’ve been focused on what the other team is going to do,” said junior Mary Claire Breakfield. “We haven’t even talked about Briarwood this year. There is a different feeling this year compared to the other years.”
While making six consecutive state tournaments is impressive, the Lady Eagles have failed to advance past the semifinals in all five semifinal appearances. Making matters worse, the team that defeated Athens went on to win state in three of those years.
“We’ve got to get more mentally prepared, more focused,” Breakfield said. “Every team that’s in the final four has skills, so it comes down the mental game. It’s going to come down to our second-half play and how well you play under pressure.”
Kickoff from John Hunt Park is at 1:30 p.m. Friday.