Staff Photo: John Bohn Auburn's Jordan Miller (18), a former Brookwood player, works with teammate Kala Faulkner (4) as University of Georgia's Andie Fontanetta (4) slides during a women's soccer exhibition game played at Greater Atlanta Christian on Thursday.
NORCROSS --It was clear that Madeline Barker felt at home.
The Georgia forward, playing one last match on her old high school field, peppered the Auburn net with a game-high four shots on goal and sent a header just over the goal in the game's first five minutes.
Despite Barker's best efforts, the Gwinnett products in orange, blue and white were the victors Thursday night in a college soccer game between the Southeastern Conference rivals that showcased the GAC facilities and brought a number of locals back home.
One of those, Hebron Christian grad Alexa Allen, scored the game-winner in the 29th minute that stood throughout for a 1-0 victory.
"It's amazing to win back in Georgia against a quality SEC team," said Allen, a rising sophomore. "They had a huge crowd here. It was exciting."
Though Barker tested the Tigers, the lone goal held up thanks to a stingy defense that featured two locals, Parkview's Kim Spence and Brookwood's Jordan Miller. The Auburn roster also included GAC grad Chelsea Gandy-Cromer, but the forward didn't play as she recovers from an injury.
Allen, Spence and Miller were supported by a large contingent of friends, family and other Auburn fans as GAC's soccer stadium was overflowing with people. UGA also had a big rooting section for Barker and fellow Gwinnett grads Chika Ibiam (Central Gwinnett), Taylor Donohue (Collins Hill) and Mariah Dickey (Collins Hill).
"It's always nice to play in Georgia, but it's rare to play so close to home," said Spence, who spent much of her night going head-to-head with Barker. "It was a really good feeling. Every time we play UGA it's a battle, whether it's spring or fall."
Thursday marked the second straight year the two SEC programs played each other in a spring match at GAC. The experience was so good last year, Auburn head coach Karen Hoppa said, that returning this season was a no-brainer.
Both schools' rosters are loaded with Atlanta-area talent, and the GAC campus is close enough to both colleges that it doesn't require an overnight stay.
"It's fantastic (at GAC)," Hoppa said. "You can't even believe you're pulling into a high school. And the grass. You just don't see in high school a lot where you have such nice grass. Some of the girls driving in thought we were playing on a turf field, so to have just nice grass like we would play an SEC game on is fantastic.
"The folks are great here. They give us a locker room. A really good environment, too. It's great for our Atlanta kids, especially the one who scored the game-winner."
Allen is part of a pretty consistent pipeline of Gwinnett talent that has played at Auburn in recent years.
Hoppa's past teams have included standouts like Sarah Steinmann (Providence), Jennifer Johnson (GAC), Kristin, Jada and Lauren Stewart (Parkview) and Lizzie Hamersley (Providence), among others.
"Fourteen years ago when we started at Auburn, we knew there was so much talent in Atlanta," Hoppa said. "Certainly we battle Georgia in recruiting a lot, but there are so many great players that we get our fair share. We've had some great ones, Sarah Steinmann and Ronda Brooks, were both SEC players of the year from up here."
One of Hoppa's incoming recruits, GAC senior Taylor Wagnon, was in the stands Thursday night.
"Just seeing all the freshmen on the field, it's going to be real next year for sure," said Wagnon, who watched the game with GAC teammate and UGA signee Rachel Garcia.
The current teammates admittedly rooted on their future schools in the SEC matchup, while envisioning a transition from fan to college player later this year.
"It's exciting. I can't wait to be there and I know Taylor can't wait to be there, either," Garcia said of college soccer. "It's exciting to see Maddie and Chelsea play because we just played with them a couple of years ago and we know that's going to be our future."
After two enjoyable years in a row, GAC officials hope the Auburn-UGA spring game keeps coming back to Norcross. With Wagnon and Garcia joining the teams' ranks next season, there will be even more local interest.
UGA's incoming recruiting class also features Mill Creek's Lauren Tanner.
"They came last year and enjoyed it," GAC girls coach Troy Bendickson said. "I hope they'll do it for the next several years because we'll have players on both teams in the future. ... It's great for us. It gets a lot of people on our campus and it speaks well of our facility that they liked playing on our pitch."