Staff Photo: John Bohn Greater Atlanta Christian's Rachel Garcia (2), left, celebrates with teammate Mollie Arrendale (12), right, after Garcia scored the second of her three goals during a girls soccer semifinal Class AA state playoff game against Wesleyan on Tuesday. GAC defeated Wesleyan 7-0. Garcia also had a pair of assists.
Troy Bendickson remembers the conversation well.
The GAC girls head varsity coach was standing in front of a bunch of eighth grade girls and looking at a bright soccer future.
"I said, 'I am so excited for what you are about to bring to our program,'" Bendickson remembered this week, "'I think the next four years you can leave a legacy that can't be touched.'"
That crop of players led the Spartans to their first girls state soccer title a year ago and now, in their last go-around, they are chasing back-to-back titles. In their time they suffered through losses in the semifinals and in the title game. They've turned GAC from underdog to top dog, changing the expectations of their classmates and competitors.
"The mentality is different," Bendickson said. "This year came with so much expectation. You are coaching from a spot of more expectations. You have to try to coach against that a little bit and make sure they know they have to win each game."
It's a lesson the Spartans learned a few times this season, losing their third match of the season and perhaps moreso in a 2-1 win over Westminster.
The same Westminster team they play today at West Georgia for the Class AA state championship.
The high-scoring Spartans, coming off of spring break, traveled to Westminster and scored in the first 38 seconds of the game. But the Wildcats' defense locked down on GAC, spotting their top players and staying back to not allow the speed attack to get past their back line. A goal by penalty kick tied the game sending it to overtime. With just minutes remaining before the match headed to penalty kicks, the Spartans scored the winning goal. In that moment, GAC celebrated in the way it did before the weight of the pressure fell on its shoulders.
"Sometimes the victories aren't as celebrated," Bendickson said of playing under higher standards "That's neat in some way. (But), we celebrated that goal. It's good to celebrate. It's good to realize we are mortal on the soccer field."
Since that win, they've been closer to immortal. In the four wins to reach today's title game, the Spartans outscored their opponents 36-0, winning two matches 10-0. In the semifinals against neighbor and rival Wesleyan, GAC won 7-0.
"Our offense is a powerful offense," Bendickson said.
And led by that offense, GAC is a win away from realizing what Bendickson predicted all those years ago, before these players drove a car or won a single varsity game.
"To see the young players and you see them coming in junior high and and you watch them grow up, literally. That's a very special thing for sure," he said. "I think they are motivated. They are going to leave a footprint in a major way on the soccer program for sure."