The GMC Prep boys soccer team finds itself in both a familiar and unfamiliar situation as it prepares for the GHSA Class A-Public state championship against Lake Oconee Academy.
The scenario is unfamiliar, of course, because this is the program’s first shot at winning a state title, but also due to the opponent. It’s unfamiliar because throughout the 2019 state playoffs the Bulldogs have been matched up against teams they did not see during the regular season or, in some cases, had never seen before. GMC Prep now faces a team they defeated not only in the recent regular season, but a total of four times over the last three seasons.
“There’s definitely some familiarity there,” GMC coach Bobby Jaworski said prior to his team’s Monday practice.
The results in those four matchups? All wins for the Bulldogs over the LOA Titans of Greensboro, but the numbers exhibit a troubling trend if you’re a GMC supporter. From oldest final to most recent, the scores have been 6-0, 4-0, 4-2, and finally 2-1 in the most recent matchup on March 5 of this season. For better or worse, the Titans also have not been tested to the extent the Bulldogs have this postseason. LOA took down Elite Scholars Academy in the first round 5-1, Claxton in the second 4-1, and Area 2 runner-up ACE Charter 4-2 in the semis.
“LOA has been playing really well,” Jaworski said. “It’s just going to be tough. It’s tough to beat a team five times in a row.”
Coach Jaworski’s Bulldogs have had their work cut out for them this postseason. They sliced through Dooly County 10-1 in the opening round before playing a pair of instant classics on their home field. Trion (quarterfinal opponent) and Atkinson County (semis) both took GMC Prep down to the wire in 1-1 games that had to be settled on penalty kicks. But the sport of soccer is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s a good thing for the Bulldogs that many of their players are part of the three-time defending state cross country champions.
Adding another level of familiarity to the state championship matchup is the coach on LOA’s sideline, Julie Brooker, whose coaching career path previously took her to GMC Prep. Brooker helped take the GMC softball program to back-to-back state championships and also spent time coaching soccer in the spring, including serving alongside Jaworksi with the boys program for two years.
Even further, GMC Prep and LOA both have athletes that play as part of the same club program during the school offseason.
Mostly unfamiliar for the Bulldogs will be the surface the state championship is being played on — artificial turf as opposed to the Robertson Field grass they’ve become very accustomed to throughout the playoffs as all three of their games have been played on it. Mercer University’s Five Star Stadium in Macon will play host to Thursday’s Class A-Public boys and girls soccer state championships, and the venue boasts an artificial surface. The Titans have an edge in that aspect as their home games are played inside Greene County High School’s football stadium which also has the alternative turf.
In an effort to level the playing field, GMC bused the team to Macon Monday to practice at the Ed Defore Sports Complex so players could get used to how the ball reacts on the artificial surface. The Bulldogs have only played one varsity game on turf this season when they traveled to Social Circle right after spring break. GMC won that game 2-1. For some players it was their second look after having played a junior varsity game at the Social Circle venue earlier in the season.
“It tends to be a little bit faster,” Jaworski said. “You don’t have as much grass cutting off the direction of the ball and it bounces a little bit more. The ball skips more and it just moves quicker, so you have to adjust. If you don’t have it down during your warmups and training or 15 minutes in, then it’s probably not going to come.”
Jaworski would like to get additional practices in on the turf ahead of Thursday’s state championship, but conflicting school events will have the Bulldogs back on Robertson Field Tuesday and Wednesday. GMC’s Honors Night is scheduled for tonight and the spring sports banquet will be held Wednesday.
“Because both of those events are the next two nights we’ve got to practice directly right after school,” the coach said. “It’s not really a nice little buildup into the championship, it’s more of a shuffle and sprint kind of thing. But I think we’ve got enough tread on our tires to make this thing work.”
Jaworski and the Bulldogs will see just how well those tires grip on the artificial surface against Lake Oconee Academy Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. with the Class A-Public state championship on the line at Mercer University’s Five Star Stadium. The venue will play host to the Class A-Public girls state championship between ACE Charter and Atlanta Classical Academy beforehand, which is set to start at 5 p.m.