Photo: Craig Cappy North Gwinnett's Katie Strand, right, tries to push the ball foward as she is defended by Mlton's Anna Hilpertshauser (4) during a playoff game.
For North Gwinnett's seniors, what a run it was.
When the North girls lost 6-1 to eventual state Class AAAAA soccer champion Milton in the quarterfinals, the loss did more than end a season, it ended an era.
For seniors Abby Grest, Ashlyn Hogg, Brooke Bortles, Jeffica Eberhart, Lauren Harriman, Mackenzie Loula and Paige Scarbourgh the loss was the earliest ouster suffered in the state playoffs since they were freshmen. They won a state title their sophomore year and ended their junior season as state runner-up.
But the group entered their final season with a new coach, Erik Crawford, were asked to adjust to a new 4-3-3 alignment and spent the year watching the team grow from just more than a dozen to 24 players by the time the winter sports ended.
"We staggered ourselves for about a month and a half," Crawford said. "We didn't get three players until almost the start of region."
None of it stopped North from going 14-7 and winning Region 7-AAAAA. They spent the early part of the season installing the new formation and searching for a goalkeeper.
"We did a lot of goalkeeping by committee," Crawford said.
Eventually the role fell to Austin McCausland after she joined the team following basketball season.
McCausland, a member of the state championship team, suffered a pair of knee injuries during her high school career and this season finally worked past them.
"Playing goal, she's really athletic and she really helped us," Crawford said.
Nine of North's 14 wins were shutouts aided not only by the goalkeepers, but by a back line that included seniors Loula, Eberhart and Scarbourgh.
"They were, no matter what team it was, they were always in there and they did what it took for us to win the games that were vital for us," Crawford said. "
Loula led the way and Eberhart always drew the opponents best defender.
Along with the defense, Crawford also praised his center-midfield. A typically unsung group of facilitators who set up goals rather than score and assist on them, the Bulldogs' center-midfield of Caroline Gualdone, Harriman, freshman Amanda Delgado and Grest stood out to Crawford all season.
"Almost every game we played in, we dominated the center-midfield," he said. "It's one of those thankless positions."
North's seniors, who set the expectations of winning from the start of the season, also helped Crawford transition from assistant to head coach, replacing Mark Karen. Crawford knew the seniors well and said that familiarity and trust made his ascension smoother.
"There was a good feeling out process," Crawford said. "I had to switch roles. We had to get serious and they had to learn when I was being serious and when I was ready to get down to business. But because I knew them, I think that was helpful for me to be able to ease into that."
And now another transition begins. The transition of the younger players filling the roles and spots vacated by the outgoing group of senior winners.
"All these girls are going to be tough to replace," Crawford said. "We have a lot of youngsters that are going to have to step up and fill some big shoes next year."