For the second time in as many years, the 2-A NCISAA State Championship trophy rests in the Swannanoa Valley - on Oct. 29, the Asheville Christian Academy Lions defeated Coastal Christian, 3-2.
The Lions finished the season 17-4-2, one win better than in 2015, when they won the first state title in the program’s history. Winning the state championship back to back was no easy task, however.
“It was incredibly difficult,” said Terry Hughes, director of soccer operations at ACA and the head coach of the school’s girl’s and boy’s teams. “Every team and every coach is coming to challenge you. I know that because I’ve done that for years when we play against some of the top teams.”
The coach didn’t shy away from challenges when making his team’s schedule heading into the 2016 season.
“We put together a hard schedule this year,” he said. “We played Asheville, Reynolds, Owen, Christ School twice," he said. "We went down and played Fayetteville and Coastal Christian, two of the best private schools around.”
The schedule forced seniors like Max Hill, who led the Lions with 23 goals, Max Gompers and Coleman Compton, who each recorded 15 assists, to prepare for tough competition nightly. Hughes said the schedule kept his team focused throughout the season on the Lions' quest for a second state title.
“We really couldn’t take any days off,” he said.
The strategy worked for Hughes, who said that while the 2015 championship team relied on an “abundance of talent,” this year was different.
“This year we didn’t play as pretty as we did last year,” he said. “This year was a little more hard-nosed, blue collar-type work ethic where they had to dig in and win tough games.”
The championship match itself, played in High Point at Wesleyan Christian Academy against Carolina Christian, required the Lions to overcome a 1-0 deficit at the half.
“We were looking at how many scoring chances we had in the first half of that game at halftime,” Hughes said. “In 40 minutes of play we only created one scoring chance, and that’s crazy for us.”
So Hughes and his staff turned to Hill and Compton.
“They have great chemistry,” he said. “Within the first three minutes of the second half, we had two scoring opportunities created by those two playing together.”
Hughes was not surprised by his team’s ability to pull out a win in the most important game of the season. After all, the Lions had already shown they were mentally tough when they beat Fayetteville Academy four days earlier.
“We had to go all the way to Fayetteville to play on a Tuesday night at 6 p.m,” he said. “And that’s a team that’s won 14 state championships. They hadn’t lost a game on their home field in over three years.”
Hughes, who played soccer at Montreat College before graduating there, came to ACA in 2007. He guided the girls team to its first state title in the 2014-15 season. That team fell just short of repeating as state champions last spring.
“It’s a great time for soccer here at ACA right now,” Hughes said. “We have tremendous families, tremendous kids and a tremendous administration. I’m blessed because I feel like they’ve all taken me on this ride.”
Freshman Reece Collie, who scored eight goals for the Lions this season, said he felt fortunate to be part of the championship team.
“My brother was the goalie last year, and seeing the excitement that he felt winning a title last year made me excited to be part of that this year,” he said. “We knew we could win again this year if we worked hard.”