It’s fair to wonder who turned the N.C. High School Athletics Association 4A East girls’ soccer playoffs into a Southwest Wake Athletic Conference tournament.
To start with, seven SWAC teams earned playoff bids, but the surprising part is the last two standing are sixth-place Athens Drive and fourth-place Middle Creek. Neither SWAC upstart made the playoffs a year ago when Middle Creek finished last in the conference with a 2-12 record.
The Cinderella stories meet in the regional final at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Athens Drive’s field based on the Jaguars’ No. 24 seed over Middle Creek’s No. 26 seed. One of those teams will be making a first appearance in Saturday’s NCHSAA championship.
The previous four 4A East regional winners – Green Hope twice and Panther Creek twice, each going 1-1 in the 4A title game – are also from the SWAC.
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“We play in a very strong conference and got better as the season went along,” said Athens Drive coach Travis Seese. “Look at how strong our conference did in the playoffs. It’s a battle every time you go out there in our conference. Our girls were battle-tested and confident when the playoffs began.”
SWAC schools went 7-0 in the first round. The second-round record was 4-3, but one loss was an all-SWAC matchup when seventh-place Holly Springs upset runner-up Fuquay-Varina on penalty kicks.
In the third round, Athens Drive took down No. 1 seed Clayton; Middle Creek stunned No. 2 Cardinal Gibbons; and Panther Creek slipped past No. 22 Sanderson, which had earlier upset SWAC champion Green Hope.
In the fourth round, Athens Drive beat No. 4 seed Leesville Road 1-0, while in another all-SWAC matchup, Middle Creek beat Panther Creek on penalty kicks.
Note that it took penalty kicks for two of the seven SWAC schools to finally go down.
“We knew we had the girls to do it, but we had to get them in the right place and get them to jell,” said first-year Middle Creek coach Guy Coleman. “My philosophy is you might not like everyone in your family, but you support each other. We worked hard at changing the mentality. We scheduled Broughton as a tough (nonconference) game to open the season. We came out of it with a tie – a controversial tie. We felt we had beaten Broughton. Then we beat Panther Creek. We knew from that point on, we had something to build on.”
Despite Middle Creek finishing with a 6-5-5 conference record and Athens Drive a 6-7-3 SWAC mark, both saw progress. The records and the seeding system contributed to their low seeds; check their overall records and do the math. Neither lost a nonconference match.
Middle Creek was 12-5-6, 6-0-1 outside the SWAC. Athens Drive was 15-7-3, 9-0-0 in nonconference matches. Both teams also cite intangibles in addition to talent for their postseason success.
Athens Drive senior Rachel Snyder said the five seniors that were on the varsity as sophomores noted the lack of teamwork their junior season and contrasted it with their sophomore year when the Jaguars advanced to the playoffs.
“We started doing a lot of team bonding experiences,” said Snyder, who is bound for UNC Asheville along with her twin sister, Erika. “We had a sleepover once our sophomore year but not last year. The sleepover and bonding experiences helped our confidence. We came to practice every day with a good attitude.”
Middle Creek senior Grace Kennedy said the Mustangs combined improved teamwork with young talent such as freshman Mattie Murphy.
“Last year, no one played for each other,” Kennedy said. “This year, we play hard for each other, and we’re having a lot of fun.”
Another intangible in this matchup is that although Athens Drive has the home-field advantage, Middle Creek has had more success on the road, going 10-2-2.
The Mustangs beat Athens Drive on the Jaguars’ field but lost to them at home. For Saturday night’s home win over Panther Creek, Coleman wanted his team to think like it was playing on the road.
“We got on the bus and drove around the block before the game,” he said.
It’s been a strange SWAC season.