Last year at this time, the Asheville Christian Academy Lions were enjoying a successful season, in the midst of a winning streak that last more than a month. That team was loaded with senior talent and leadership. But it is this group of young players who was named the top 2-A team in the state vy the N.C. Soccer Coaches Association.
The Lions have yet to lose a match this season, dominating the Carolina Athletic Association. A team with twice as many eighth graders as seniors did not give up a single goal to a conference opponent until April 28.
Head coach Terry Hughes, in his eighth season as the coach of both the boys and girls ACA varsity soccer programs, has been slightly surprised by his team's performance this year.
"If you would have asked me in January or February where we would be, I would have said this was possible," he said. "Could we have been on the other end of that statistical line? Absolutely. We could have run the full gamut. We lost a really good senior class last year."
With one senior and two juniors on the roster for the Lions this year, the team has relied heavily on contributions from young players. Freshman Emily Grice has accounted for 18 of the team's 56 goals, while also leading ACA in assists.
"She's been awesome," Hughes said. "She filled a need that we had. We needed a goal scorer coming into this year. We needed somebody that could open up play for everybody else."
The speed and athleticism of Grice has provided a boost for the Lions this season. The team's captain and lone senior Hannah Thornburg credits the entire team for doing the necessary work to get ready for what many around the team thought could be a tough year.
"We put a lot of time in during our offseason, so the team was very prepared when the season started," she said.
Familiarity with one another has been another key to success for the team this year, according to junior midfielder Anna Otto, who believes that communication on the field has helped the team bond.
"We work really well together," she said. "A bunch of the younger kids have been playing together for a long time, and we all know each other. We really work well together on and off the field."
From her vantage point as the team's goalkeeper, junior Sabrina Jones has seen that connection on the field translate into quality soccer. However, she believes that the collective talent on the team is the primary force behind its success.
"We have done really well with our footwork this year," she said. "We have some players that can just take the ball and keep possession. We can also move it down the field fast."
Jones has been impressed with the ability of players on the team to adjust to the game and with how it is played at the varsity level.
"I definitely think a lot of our players have a great sense of where to be on the field and timing," she said. "We have a couple of middle schoolers, and they can really keep up."
Hughes realized early in the season that this team could be special.
"Early on in the season we were without three of our key starters," he said. "We played Enka and we played Asheville High, and we didn't really have our full complement of players for those games. All 17 of our girls can play. We put ourselves in some difficult situations, and the response of our players was great."
As the postseason approaches, Hughes is confident that his team is ready to represent the school and each other. "ACA is just a special place to be," he said. "The kids get along very well on and off the field. They're so mature for their age."