By Gabriel Stovall
McDONOUGH, Ga. — Welcome to the Eagle’s Landing soccer revival.
Thursday night the Golden Eagles’ boys soccer team defeated No. 9 Buford 1-0, giving the school its second win over a top 10 team this season. The first happened earlier this season in a 2-0 defeat of then-No. 6 Spalding, at Spalding no less.
It’s indicative of the culture change that second-year coach Justin Brantley has brought to the program. And it’s not something simply stumbled upon. In fact, when you listen to Brantley talk about his team’s success this season, he makes you believe it was expected.
Case in point: Thursday’s win at Buford. Brantley was happy about it, but he wasn’t gushing — the signs of a coach who knew what his team could do.
“Well, I mean that game was huge for our team,” Brantley said. “We only had 13 kids there due to spring break with some of them being out. We went into the game without two of our starters who were on vacation. We went into the game expecting to win anyway, but we just weren’t sure how it was going to shake out.”
It was sophomore Kamrin Cousins who provided the match’s only offense when he scored around 20 minutes into the second half. Freshman goalie also had Logan Friddell had several key saves in what Brantley called a “phenomenal” defensive effort from his young squad.
And it’s Eagle’s Landing’s youth movement that Brantley believes has keyed the resurgence.
“Last year was my first year as coach, and I kind of wanted to implement a system where we play our best players regardless of age,” Brantley said. “Last year we only lost one starter who was a senior, so this year we knew we were going to have a lot of returning kids.”
Eagle’s Landing (10-3, 6-2 in region 4-AAAA) had eight returners to be exact — starters who got lots of valuable playing time in 2014 as freshmen and sophomores around last year’s star Amit Yadav.
Yadav helped guide the Eagles to an 11-7 mark and a second round finish in the Class AAAA tournament in last season. And as awesome of a player as Yadav was, at least one current Eagle’s Landing standout — George Rodriguez — believes Yadav’s absence has actually had an energizing effect on this year’s squad.
“I think we’ve done a lot better since last year and losing Amit as one of our key players,” Rodriguez said. “It made it so we don’t rely as much on how he plays. Last year it was like we would just pass the ball around to him and he was good enough to take on everybody.”
This year it’s Rodriguez, the junior center mid, who could be the team’s top player, at least according to Brantley.
“If you were to come to the games you’d definitely say that he’s a star player,” Brantley said. “He just plays leaps and bounds above other competition. He’s one of those athletes you’re just blessed to have.”
And different from Yadav last year, Rodriguez doesn’t flex his muscles as a goal scorer. He prefers playing a bit of point guard on the soccer field.
“I’m not the big goal scorer,” he said. “That’s not what I try to be, but I like to set up my teammates for scoring. I like to get everybody else involved.”
The team’s success has completely changed the way players view the program. Before Brantley’s arrival you’d have to go back to 2008 to find a state tournament level Eagle’s Landing soccer team. Brantley said before last season, the school suffered through “a few consecutive seasons of losing records.”
Rodriguez himself can attest to the paradigm shift at Eagle’s Landing since Brantley’s arrival.
“Oh, it’s definitely changed a lot,” Rodriguez said. “The coach when I was a freshman, I don’t know if he was as committed as coach Brantley. The reason we’ve gone this far is because he pushes us guys in practice and whatever we need to win, he gives us.”
That includes Saturday practices and Sunday film sessions that put you more in the mind of a football team’s regimen than that of a soccer squad.
Also, Brantley has made no bones about wanting to put his team in front of the best competition available. In addition to the region tilt with Spalding, putting teams like Buford and Heritage, who Eagle’s Landing will play Saturday at 5 p.m., on the schedule has been Brantley’s intentional way of exposing his boys to some of the better soccer talent the state has to offer.
“Heritage has been a top perennial powerhouse in 5A for a long time,” he said. “Our guys are optimistic and get excited to play teams like that. These are schools that have always been known for soccer. We’re just showing these kids that this is the type of soccer you can play if you can continue to work at it.”
Said Rodriguez: “Playing those kinds of teams and winning just gives us a lot of confidence going forward. It gives us the confidence to believe we can beat any team in the state. We feel like we’ve definitely got the talent on this team to do it.”
That’s why both Rodriguez and Brantley are saying state tournament or bust. Winning region and making a deep run at state were preseason goals of this team, and the regular season upsets of top flight teams along the way just make the ride sweeter.
“You know, we play these teams and they see this place, you know, Eagle’s Landing High School as some school in Henry County they’ve never heard of before, and we come out and compete with these teams or beat these teams,” Brantley said. “It’s pretty awesome to see.”