Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. North Gwinnett's Abby Groth is the Daily Post's girls soccer Player of the Year. Groth, a Utah signee, helped her team to a Class AAAAA runner-up finish.
At the start of what was supposed to be Abby Groth's final half of high school soccer, disaster struck.
The North Gwinnett senior injured her knee in a collision just moments into the second half of the Class AAAAA championship game, sending her to the bench for the rest of the night. Barely able to move around and fighting back tears, she watched helplessly as the Bulldogs fought to the end of a 1-0 loss at Harrison.
"Between crying and sobbing, I was screaming for everyone," Groth said of her final high school soccer game. "I was yelling for anyone next to the sideline. 'There are 10 minutes left. You're so close. We just need one goal.' It was very difficult to watch. The team that we have, it's just so frustrating.
"I was scared for my teammates, Harrison got forward a lot and had a lot of momentum and almost scored a few times. It was very nerve-racking. We had constant injuries. I was so worried about everyone."
The Bulldogs surely had concerns, too. They lost their fastest defender, an anchor who also is a threat moving into the attack.
Groth initially thought she would feel better after an ice treatment, allowing her to return to the game. But she could barely walk, much less play, after what was diagnosed eventually as a torn posterior cruciate ligament.
"I hope I could have helped Harrison stay out of our half some more (in the second half)," Groth said. "The four of us are so used to playing together (in the defense). I'm used to supporting them and they're used to supporting me. It's just better if we're all together."
Throughout the season, that group was more than impressive. And Groth, the Daily Post's girls player of the year, was counted on heavily for her defensive skills and her recovery speed for a North defense that posted 13 shutouts and allowed 17 goals all season (and five of those were in an early-season loss to McIntosh).
That unit was key in the season's closing stages as North took an 11-game winning streak into the state finals. Groth also played a role with her occasional forays into the attack, scoring a huge equalizing goal in the regular-season finale against Mill Creek that earned the Bulldogs the region's No. 2 seed and a few extra home playoff games.
"Groth has played her whole career to this point without any real publicity for being a great player," North girls coach Mark Karen said. "Although she has recently come on the scene and has been recognized as a great defender this year, it did not just happen overnight. She has started all four years on our varsity team, which means she was a major part of two region championships, two region runner-ups, a state title and a state runner-up.
"We have been given credit for having a strong defense during those four years and Groth is one of the main reasons for that. She does not always give herself enough credit for being a great player but her play on the field and her work ethic does all the talking for her."
North's season was especially gratifying for Groth and her fellow seniors, particularly Abbi Edwards, Krissy Tamburo and Maggie Grayson, who also were four-year members of the program. They played key roles during North's 2010 state championship season, which featured high-scoring forward Danielle Au.
With Au's graduation, the state wide expectations for North went down this season. That made the 19-4 season (matching the 2010 team's win total) and state runner-up finish more satisfying.
"I'm extremely proud. I couldn't be prouder of our team," Groth said. "I know it's really upsetting that we lost, but everyone doubted us. We get criticism and we don't get a lot of credit. They think our accomplishments were all because of Danielle Au. She's amazing, but I'm glad we got this far and showed everyone that we're a really good team.
"I have the ultimate appreciation for my teammates and coaches. I can't stress enough how much they've impacted my life."
Groth will take her talents far away for college soccer, having signed early with Utah. How she got there is a unique story.
She had no previous ties to that state before the recruiting process began, but thought the area was beautiful when she saw it on a trip. She wrote the Utah coach and set up a visit, earning a scholarship offer in the process. The letter provided Utah with a player from Georgia, a state the school doesn't typically recruit heavily.
"(The Utah coach) was really surprised (when he got the letter)," Groth said. "I was on my visit and he was like, 'What are you doing here? Why Utah?' He was constantly asking me if I was ready for the snow. ... I'm the only one from the South (on Utah's team). They'll probably make fun of my accent a little bit."
She gets an early jump on college, reporting June 20 for summer classes. She will continue rehabilitation on her knee in Utah, hoping to get it ready for the fall season.
Groth is part of a large group of incoming freshman defenders, so she isn't sure where she fits into the mix. Given the location of her high school and club soccer teams, she said the Utah coaches have seen a lot more games of the school's other recruits -- which means she has a lot to prove when she arrives.
Karen, for one, is sure that the Utah coaches will be impressed.
"Groth has garnered a lot of attention this season and has lived up to and exceeded all expectations this year," Karen said. "It's helped solidify her as one of the best defenders to ever play at North Gwinnett and one of the best in our county."