Sports Editor Will Hammock
It's safe to say most of the teams in the Class AA girls soccer playoffs didn't expect much from Wesleyan in the playoffs.
The Wolves were winless in their last nine matches of the regular season, with the only non-loss coming April 2 in a tie with Whitefield Academy. Their last victory before the postseason --March 7 vs. Pinecrest Academy.
Despite that rough finish, the playoffs offered a reset, one that the Wesleyan players and coaches are making the most of. They knocked off sixth-ranked Calhoun 2-0 in the first round and defeated Jefferson 8-0 in Tuesday's second round, both on the road.
They can keep the surprising postseason run going Friday with another long road trip, this one to Vidalia.
"I'm really proud of the girls," said Wesleyan girls coach Lacy Gilbert, whose team's Elite Eight appearance is its best playoff showing since the 2009 Final Four. "To have a record like that (3-12-1), it can be hard to keep a team motivated. But we're taking this as a brand-new season at this point. (The players) have bought in that our tough schedule got us ready for these games."
While the success may come as a shock to many in the AA bracket, the teams on Wesleyan's schedule won't find it too surprising. The Wolves play in by far the state's toughest region, 6-AA, with defending state champion Greater Atlanta Christian, Westminster and Lovett. Those three teams likely will make up the majority of the Final Four, with Wesleyan just one win away from the other semifinal spot.
The difficult region schedule, two games with each of those teams, contributed to Wesleyan's unattractive regular-season record. The slate also included games with Roswell and Duluth from AAAAAA, the No. 2 team in A (Holy Innocents'), the No. 3 team in A (Hebron) and Lakeside, a AAAAA team that was 18-1-1.
The Wolves faced that schedule after graduating 10 seniors off last year's playoff team. They also lost their leading scorer, a center midfielder who moved to New York, and they have a young roster with six freshmen and six sophomores.
Injuries also sent three starters out in preseason training, adding more challenges. Gilbert didn't have her full-strength team until the 15th game of the season.
But the Wolves are healthy now, and on a roll to a Final Four spot that few outside of their own region expected.
"At this point, we want to do well for this season but we're also setting the stage for next season, too," Gilbert said. "We only lose three seniors so we're building for the future, too."
Will Hammock can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Thursdays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willhammock.