From the goalkeeper's vantage point, Kirsten Ross can see the entirety of the soccer field.
Because of that, she can appreciate more than anyone what is happening on the field for the North Georgia College and State University women's team, which features five starters from her home county. Very little time passes before a Gwinnett native makes a nice pass, comes up with a great defensive play or scores a goal.
That local connection is a big reason why the Saints are off to the best start in school history at 6-0 and are ranked an all-time best 16th nationally in the latest NCSAA/NCAA Division II poll. They're ranked second in the Southeast region.
"It definitely helps out to have (so many Gwinnett players)," said Ross, a senior who played at Parkview. "We've worked a lot with the same coaches and we have a lot in common, so it's kind of cool that we're all from the same area."
Ross is a big factor in the success. She has 23 saves and an impressive 0.33 goals-against average, earning Peach Belt Conference goalkeeper of the week honors earlier this week for her play (five saves) in a double-overtime, 1-0 win over previously unbeaten UNC-Pembroke last week.
She credits the defense, which features Brookwood grads Melanie Thompson and Megan Morrow at center back, for a huge role in the low goals-against average. Thompson is a veteran defender who played club ball with Ross and Morrow is a freshman who was named the Peach Belt defender of the week after helping Ross and her teammates to back-to-back shutouts.
"I love having (Thompson and Morrow) in front of me," Ross said. "I have a lot of confidence in all of my defense."
While Gwinnett's impact is heavy on the North Georgia defense, it doesn't stop there.
Brookwood grad Natalie Douglass, also a full-time starter, has two goals from the midfield and Kelly Penston has a team-high five goals as a forward. Penston had both goals, one in the 20th minute and a clincher in the 82nd, as the Saints beat Belmont Abbey 2-0 on Tuesday.
North Georgia, which also has Brookwood's Emily Hughes on the roster, hopes to keep its strong start going today against Montevallo.
"We train hard, we work hard at practice and we hope for the best," said Ross, in her first season as a full-time starter. "Since I've been here, we've been improving every year. I'm glad to see us continuing to get better."
The North Georgia men's team, off to a 4-2-1 start, also relies on Gwinnett players in the rotation. Jamie Gleeson (Dacula), Juan Hurtado (Collins Hill) and Ben Tayi (Central Gwinnett) are starting for a team that also includes Mikki Bozickovic (Central), Carlos Avendano (North Gwinnett) and Kris Alonzo (Dacula).
Wake Forest's Terence Davis, a Brookwood grad, had three catches for 25 yards and a score in last week's win over Gardner-Webb. Norcross grad D.J. Adams rushed for two TDs in Maryland's narrow 37-31 loss to West Virginia last weekend. Mill Creek grad Ed Russ became the first LaGrange College quarterback to rush for 100 yards in a game, finishing with a game-high 105 rushing yards in last Saturday's 13-10 win over Maryville College. Fellow Mill Creek grad James Powell has 12 tackles (nine solos) this season for Jacksonville State (2-1).
Grayson grad Tristan Strong had his best game in Vanderbilt's domination of Ole Miss, making eight tackles (six solos). Teammate T.J. Greenstone of Collins Hill added three stops and South Gwinnett's Jonathan Krause had five offensive touches (three rushes) and three punt returns for 17 yards. ... Brookwood's Josh Jackson is Army's No. 1 punt returner, returning three for 22 yards so far this season while starting at cornerback, where he has nine tackles. Teammate and fellow Brookwood grad A.J. Mackey also has nine stops. South Florida routed Florida A&M and Buford's Demetris Murray had six carries for 47 yards and a 36-yard reception. He's averaging 45 rushing yards in three games.
Locals run well at Mercer
Three Gwinnett products placed in the top 20 for Georgia College and State University's cross country teams at last weekend's Mercer RunFit Invitational.
Shiloh's Tyler Mattix, a GCSU senior, was 12th in the men's 8K with a time of 26 minutes, 38 seconds. Senior teammate Colin Conroy of Mill Creek was 20th at 27:13.
Parkview's Rebecca Shane, a freshman, was 15th in the women's 6K race in 25:37.
Gwinnett Grads is a column that runs on Saturdays spotlighting achievements of past Gwinnett standouts. Coaches and parents are urged to send suggestions via email to email@example.com.