By Gabriel Stovall
FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. — Don’t call it unfinished business.
At least that’s what Starr’s Mill girls soccer coach John Bowen says. It’s more like a long-awaited business trip.
The Lady Panthers are making its second trip to the Class AAAAA finals in as many years, looking for its first state championship since 2010. And for the second straight year, Bowen’s bunch will be facing a squad that they’re very familiar with.
Last year it was in-county rival McIntosh. This year, its familiar neighbor county foe Northgate, and the second-year coach isn’t looking at this year’s journey to Macon as an extension of last year’s.
“We definitely want to improve on our performance in this game from last year,” said Bowen, who’s team lost to McIntosh in the 2014 state final. “But I don’t know if it’s really unfinished business, because last year’s team and situation was a totally different thing. Getting back here is more like ‘finally.’ You feel a little bit empty because you know you can’t get right back on the field and replicate things until you get back to it in the next season.”
Getting back to the state championship game wasn’t a foregone conclusion for the 2014 runners-up, either.
Bowen said his squad is “closer to full strength” now then at any other point in the season. Early season injuries to players such as Lesley Logan (torn meniscus) and Carly Pressgrove is getting over a broken collarbone.
The roster holes caused Bowen to have to do a lot of moving and shifting and experimenting with positions in order to get good fits. But for the last 10 games — including eight straight wins — he’s had his closest representation of his best starting combination.
“During this 10-game run with pretty much everyone back, everyone kind of knows what’s up,” he said. “Everybody knows their positions and what’s expected. There’s better communication. Everyone knows what everyone is doing. Earlier on before Carly got healthy, with all the shifting around, we had to try and get everybody comfortable. We had too many players thinking out there too much about what was happening.”
Early season struggles aside, Bowen said it was right around spring break time when he had a feeling that this team could make a run at what last year’s team fell short of.
“I’ll tell you, it was a long time coming, but that last game we played at Parkview at their place on senior night, with the quality opponent they are and all that tradition, for us to go up there and win made me come out of that and say we could do something special here,” he said.
Now the Panthers will face one of their toughest rivals Friday in Macon at 5:30 p.m. with Class AAAAA supremacy at stake. Two of the last three games between these teams have gone into overtime, and Starr’s Mill notched a 1-0 win in the teams’ only regular season meeting this year.
Both clubs have finished in a virtual tie for the region’s top spots in the last two seasons, and each game they play against each other is almost always a nail biter. Bowen doesn’t expect anything different in Friday’s state title game at Mercer University in Macon.
“I know coach (Brian) Hicks does a real good job with those girls,” Bowen said. “They’re organized. They know their roles. They know what they’re doing. Funny thing is they’ve battled through a lot of injuries as well. But our seniors know their seniors, and the juniors, all the way down to the freshman. They all know each other well. We say McIntosh is like playing our twin sister, but Northgate may not be our twin, but it’s definitely like an older or younger sister.
“Both teams have been semifinalists or finalists the last three years. Everybody knows what’s at stake, and these games are always tough, hard fought, nail biter, physical contests. I’d be surprised if this one would be anything otherwise.”
TALE OF THE TAPE:
Northgate Vikings vs. Starr’s Mill Panthers
WHEN: Friday May 15, 5:30 p.m.
WHERE: Mercer University Five Star Stadium, 1501 Mercer University Dr., Macon, GA 31207
THE TEAMS: Northgate is 18-4 overall and 9-1 in Region 4-AAAAA. Starr’s Mill is 17-5 overall and 11-1 in Region 4-AAAAA. Starr’s Mill won the last matchup 1-0 on March 27.
THE PLAYERS: Northgate is led by senior goalkeeper Taylor DeLoach and freshman Caroline Peters. Starr’s Mill is paced by Region 4-AAAAA Player of the Year Laura Yoss, along with Carly Pressgrove, Riley Clark and Kayla Feigenbaum.
WATCHING THE GAME: If you’re going to Mercer, tickets are $12. If not, you can go here to watch a live stream of the game through the GHSA’s High School Sports Network.