Daily photo by Emily Saunders|
Decatur High sophomore Shannon Laughlin, above, and reserve Rebecca Sollie have combined for 14 shutouts for the Lady Red Raiders soccer team in 2007.
Kicking & dreaming
Decatur soccer team
focusing on state semis
By Bradley Handwerger
firstname.lastname@example.org · 340-2462
Jennifer Neill shouted out stretching instructions Wednesday afternoon, her coach not yet at the soccer fields at Point Mallard.
Neill, a Decatur senior dressed in a yellow tank top and black soccer shorts, wore a focused look on her face.
Her teammates had more pressing issues — text messaging, Decatur High intramurals, split ends.
Not a single word was spoken about the reason they were out there, however.
Decatur will take on defending state champion Briarwood at 1:30 p.m. Friday at John Hunt Park in Huntsville in a girls Class 5A semifinal. The winner will take on the winner between John Carroll and Athens, a semifinal that also begins at 1:30 p.m.
And despite the slumber party-like chitchat while stretching, the Lady Red Raiders (15-7-4) have focused on moments like this since the start of the season.
"We knew our competition in our area, and we knew what we were going up against," Neill said. "Our whole mindset was state."
How's that for confidence from a program that, prior to a 5-0 May 1 win over Cullman, had never won a postseason game?
Think of 2007 as the perfect storm for Decatur to make its run to the Final Four.
After having competed with Bob Jones, Grissom, Huntsville High, Sparkman and Austin for years in 6A, the Lady Red Raiders dropped down to 5A this year.
This year's seniors have found a steadying presence in head coach Mike Pline, who is in his third year coaching the team.
And the club program — the Raptors — is finally paying dividends in raising the level of play by giving the girls an opportunity to compete outside of the high school season, Pline said.
Not that any of this is a surprise to Pline.
"I absolutely believed we'd win our first playoff game," Pline said.
That belief comes from a schedule that certainly is one of the toughest in the state. By the time Decatur's game kicks off against Briarwood, the Lady Red Raiders will have played 23 ranked teams.
"We tried to set up something where it was beneficial to us with wins as well as giving games that would force our girls to push through and learn," Pline said.
The schedule included tough games in both the Lakeshore Shootout in Birmingham and the Huntsville Hospital Classic.
In those tournaments, Decatur faced fellow semifinalist John Carroll, current 6A No. 1 Huntsville twice, Grissom and Bob Jones. All four are traditional powers.
Pline and his team believe they're ready for Briarwood, another traditional power and a school that routinely produces college players and Final Four berths. Additionally, Briarwood graduate Cat Whitehill, formerly Cat Reddick, plays on the U.S. women's national team.
"It's always in the back of your mind that Briarwood is really good," Neill said. "But we're also a really good team."
Decatur has scored 75 goals this year while allowing only 18. Former Daily player of the year Meg Adams leads the team with 16 goals, Megan Schmidt owns 12 goals, and Georgia Gamble has 10.
Sophomore goalkeeper Shannon Laughlin and backup Rebecca Sollie have combined for 14 shutouts.
With Briarwood (17-3-1) having outscored its opponents 80-13, Laughlin and her defense will surely be tested.
"We're going to have to keep aware of their speed and their ball skills," senior defender Ellie Cole said. "It's a little scary, but I think we can hold them. Our minds will be in the right place."
Added Laughlin, "I feel prepared because we have a lot of good forwards, so I get good practice."
Pline and the girls know what they're up against. Still, just getting to the Final Four has been a history-making dream.
"I knew we had potential and that we could do good, but it never crossed my mind that we could make it to the Final Four this year," Cole said.
Class 5A girls soccer semis
Here is the schedule for the Class 5A girls soccer state semifinals to be played at John Hunt Park in Huntsville on Friday. Both games begin at 1:30 p.m.
Decatur vs. Briarwood
Athens vs. John Carroll
The winners will advance to the Class 5A finals set for 9 a.m. Saturday.
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