Was there pressure on Drew Prentice? You bet.
A first-year head coach at 26, he took over a Collins Hill's boys soccer program with high expectations. The Eagles were state runners-up in 2008 and Class AAAAA state champions last season. There was no way to take the program a greater postseason accomplishment in his debut, but plenty of room to fall.
"I wouldn't say it was a difficult situation because this group of players, I'm just very fortunate to coach them," Prentice said. "Some guys coach 20 years and don't get this kind of talent. For me to step in for my first year, it's been great to coach these kinds of players. There was a lot of pressure, I won't lie about that, because most of the core group was coming back. But I'd rather have the pressure of being expected to do well than not be taken seriously."
Second-ranked Collins Hill has lived up to those expectations in Prentice's first season. The Eagles (19-2) are back in the AAAAA finals for a third straight season, traveling to No. 1 Northview (17-1 and winners of 12 straight) tonight in an attempt to repeat.
Most of the key players on this year's team were prominent members of last year's championship squad, though there are a few exceptions. There were holes at sweeper and goalkeeper, but the defensive spots were plugged solidly, which has become clear in the Eagles' seven-game winning streak -- they've only allowed three goals during that span.
Greg Kyle stepped up at keeper when injuries made the position thin for much of the season, then freshman Jackson Taylor has stepped up lately. They both benefit from a defense that returned college-bound seniors Jonathan Nelson (Dayton), Nick Lane (Georgia Southern) and Brady O'Brien (Mercer). Josh Fancher has stepped in at the open defensive spot, while Nelson moved from stopper to sweeper to replace Nicky Mackain, now at Furman.
"We have such a talented back four we don't face a lot of shots," Prentice said.
Meanwhile the offensive punch has come from midfielder Ricky Ortega (20 goals, four assists) and strikers Malcolm Miller (10 goals, two assists) and Peter Kurowski (14 goals, six assists), along with playmaking midfielders Dominic Bonilla and Zak Wallingford. The Michigan-bound Miller was the go-to offensive threat on last year's team but he's had much more help this season, particularly with the rise of Kurowski at striker.
The UNC-Greensboro signee has become a huge threat, highlighted by a brilliant goal in a semifinal win over Milton.
"Coming into the year I didn't really know a whole lot about Peter," Prentice said. "Last year there was so much emphasis on Malcolm and other guys that Peter didn't get much exposure. But this year being around him every day, he's definitely one of our best players. He's so good 1 v. 1 and he rarely loses the ball. And his work rate is phenomenal."
Collins Hill needs its best effort of the season tonight against No. 1 Northview, which beat the Eagles 2-0 on March 23. The victory eventually decided the Region 7-AAAAA title and it also humbled a Collins Hill team that had just been ranked first in a national poll.
Northview scored both its goals in the first half, the first when Collins Hill left a player unmarked on a corner kick.
The second was most painful, an Eagle own goal just before halftime that allowed the Titans to play defensive in the second half.
The Eagles put 24 second-half shots on goal, but never found the net. The high national ranking was history.
"It was going from the highest high to the lowest low, it was a rough couple of days," Prentice said.
Now Collins Hill can avenge that loss and win another state title, while denying Northview its first crown.
"I don't think I'll need to give our guys any motivation," Prentice said. "They're excited about this game."