Staff Photo: Jason Braverman
Wesleyan's McKenzie Stanford was the team's second-leading scorer as a sophomore, but was moved to defense as a junior to help the team. Now the senior is trying to lead the Wolves to the playoffs.
McKenzie Stanford could have gone down as one of the most prolific goal scorers in Wesleyan history. And maybe even Gwinnett County.
Instead she'll never know how many goals she could have scored in her career.
As a talented sophomore forward, Stanford was leading the Wolves' offense when one of their defenders went down with an injury.
Stanford volunteered to play defense, her natural position in club soccer.
It was an uncommon request. Forwards like scoring goals and they like being the game's offensive threat. They like the celebration.
She gave it all up for the team.
"It's tough giving up the glory for the goals because it's always fun to score I think," Stanford said. "Overall it's more important to do what's best for the team. Especially that year, it was more important to play defense."
Stanford's move to defense helped Wesleyan reach the Final Four that season. Two years later, she's still in control of the Wolves' defense. Wesleyan has eight shutouts this season and is ranked No. 5 in the state in Class A.
"She's one of those players that makes everyone else better on the field. She leads by her actions," Wesleyan coach Lacy Gilbert said.
Stanford honed her soccer skills at a young age. She practiced her footwork on her own in the front yard. Daily juggling competitions at practice only made her better handling the ball and the kids goal her father put up in the backyard improved her shooting accuracy.
All of that helped her start as a freshman, but like a lot of first-year players, she was a little reluctant on the field. That changed when the Wolves played Greater Atlanta Christian.
Stanford scored on a header to lift the Wolves to a win over the rival Spartans.
"After that game, she never looked back. Every game after that she stepped on the field knowing she belonged out there," Gilbert said.
Stanford scored 13 goals that season and had 12 goals midway through her sophomore year. That's when she moved to defense. Wesleyan won 11 games in a row before losing to Lovett in the Final Four.
"It's just feels more natural," Stanford said of playing defense. "It's more fun to play offense, but it feels more natural to play defense for me."
Stanford's defensive presence helped Wesleyan reach the playoffs again last season. The Wolves won four games on penalty kicks, including a 1-0 victory over state power Westminster in the first round of the playoffs.
The only senior who has significant playing time, Stanford wants one more deep playoff push. Wesleyan sports an 8-5 record overall and a 7-3 mark in the area. All of the losses have been to highly ranked teams, including two in the Wolves' own area. The defense is once again a strength thanks to Stanford and fellow defenders Abby Daws, Shannon Felts and Grace Hodges, along with goalkeeper Hannah Duane.
"My goal is to get to state," Stanford said. "I think if we play to our potential then we could potentially win state."
Stanford still wonders how her career may have been different if she didn't move to defense. She still has that desire to score goals and Gilbert hopes to give her a few opportunities before the season is over.
"Yes, definitely. I want to," she said with a smile.