Championship road proves tough but rewarding for Lions
In 2017 the Asheville Christian Academy Lions stood on the field at Campbell University dealing with the disappointment that comes with a loss of a championship game. Cary Christian had beaten them, 3-0.
Their luck didn’t exactly improve as the 2018 season began, but it didn't deter them on their quest for a state championship. On May 19, the Lions brought home the championship, with a 1-0 overtime win against the Christ the King Crusaders. It was the second championship in the program's history.
“This is a resilient group, that’s the best way to sum them up,” said head coach Terry Hughes, who has coached the girls and boys soccer programs at ACA since 2011. “We had a lot of injuries throughout the year, especially early on.”
Players who had been on the field their entire lives were forced to fill in at positions they had never played, according to Hughes.
“For about two-thirds of the season we were missing players with different injuries,” he said. “We didn’t have our entire varsity team on the field together until our (May 2) win over Carolina Day.”
Before that game, which the Lions won 7-0, Hughes was relying on his five seniors to help guide his team through the regular season. Those seniors finished their four-year varsity career at ACA with a combined 59-8-8 record.
“Those were the girls who were willing to do whatever it took to help us be successful,” he said. “Reagan Waites has always played for me as a midfielder; she was one of the players who suffered an injury this year. When she came back, we had her play back for us, and she really became a stabilizing force for us on defense.”
Three of the five Lions seniors played on the defensive side of the field, while three-sport star Emma Newton protected the goal. Newton compiled 75 saves in goal this season and shut out the opposition eight times.
ACA’s ability to play stiff defense allowed younger players like freshman and leading scorer Reese Waites to shine offensively.
Reese, the younger sister of Reagan (one of two sets of sisters on the roster this season), scored 15 goals for the Lions this season. The team's leader in assists and third-leading scorer was Kayla Graham, an eighth-grader.
"When you lean on young players like that to score, you have to be able to defend well," he said. "(Reese Waites and Kayla Graham) are ultra-talented, and our defense helped take the pressure off of them by allowing us to either play ahead or tied for most of the season."
The Lions didn't drop a match until April 20, when they fell to last year's state champion Cary Christian, 2-1. They fell to 3A Asheville High on April 25 and won seven in a row to close out their championship campaign. Hughes gives credit for the strong finish to his players.
"We break the season down into thirds, usually into months because (the season) is about three months long," he said. "March is difficult because we haven't put the pieces together yet, and by April the coaches and players are starting to share some of the responsibility. Once we hit May, the coaching is pretty much over and it's time for them to perform."
After picking up two regular season wins to open the month of May, the Lions were dominant in the playoffs. They hosted Davidson Day in the opening round and poured in five goals in the first half before the game was called due to lightning. That win opened the coach's eyes.
"We were really good that day," Hughes said. "I then realized when I looked at the bracket we were going to have to travel the next three games."
The Lions headed to Raleigh on May 12 and blanked Grace Christian 1-0. Three days later they boarded the buses at ACA and headed off to Kinston, where the Lions prevailed 2-1 after giving up their only goal in the playoffs.
That set the stage for a championship showdown against Christ the King, out of Huntersville, on the same field that the Lions fell short of their championship goal the prior year.
"Christ the King was a fantastic team, and that match went similarly to how our season went before it," Hughes said. "At any minute, in that game or the season, the girls could've just given up. But they fought hard."
The win gave the program its second state championship (the first was in 2015). For Hughes, who was now won four state championships as a coach at ACA, this year was a special one.
"I was very happy for this group of girls," he said. "Every one of the players who suffered an injury refused to quit and went through rehab to get back out on that field. To see them there together enjoying that moment, hugging each other, made it a really sweet year."