When looking at the 2019 season alone, the road that has taken 18-2 GMC Prep boys soccer to the program’s first-ever state championship game may seem rather direct as the Bulldogs have plowed over lesser opponents and gritted out victories against tougher ones.
In reality, though, the journey to the state finals started nearly 20 years ago when current head coach Bobby Jaworski was but an eighth-grader at GMC Prep because that’s when the school played its first GHSA-sanctioned season in spring 2001. He joined up as a freshman, playing under his father Bob Jaworski throughout high school, took over the reins from his dad in 2012, and has helped continue to build the program into what it is today — one that has earned three-straight playoff appearances, an area championship, and now a shot at the state title.
Jaworski’s personal soccer journey began the same way as many athletes, playing in the local rec league around the age of 4 or 5. Both his parents, Bob and Kelly, served as volunteer coaches for the Baldwin County Recreation Department’s Old Capital Soccer League and sponsored teams since they owned Arby’s at the time.
“It was always fun to be on the Arby’s team because we would give out free milkshake cards to both teams at the end of every game,” Bobby recalled. “Everyone wanted to be on our team and everyone wanted to play us.”
Soccer was gaining popularity as a youth sport at the time, and the community’s top young talent, Jaworski included, earned their way onto the all-star teams. But at the wise old age of 8, Jaworski made a decision that had he seen it through could have had consequences to this day.
“I think I was 8 years old when I decided I didn’t want to play soccer anymore, but we were already three games into the season,” he said. “My mom told me I couldn’t quit yet, that I had to see the season out but I didn’t have to play the next season if I didn’t want to.”
As the next rec season was gearing up, he was prepared to stick to his word and cut his career short — until he wasn’t. The youngster learned a lesson that many have in their lifetimes — mother knows best. He asked if he could join back up, and she of course obliged.
“It was over from there. That’s when it all kind of set in. I never again said that I didn’t want to play anymore.”
Bob Jaworski can remember going to dinner with his then 10-year-old son, position charts and field layouts in hand ready to talk strategy.
“To this day he still comes to dinner with his position charts and his layout of the field,” Bob said. “That hasn’t changed in 20 years. He has an absolute passion for it.”
GMC Prep got its soccer program off the ground Bobby’s eighth-grade year, and both he as a player and his father as a coach jumped on board the following season. The younger Jaworski remembers the first team as being competitive, playing some teams close while the top-tier programs like Athens Academy blew them out.
“I remember being a freshman playing on their field and it being cold as hell,” Jaworski said of his first game against Athens Academy, which had at least one soccer state championship to its name at the time. “It was probably one of the first weeks of February because that was usually when we played them. There was a crosswind coming from the pond and it was swirling. They blew eight goals by me in the first half.”
Jaworski was replaced in goal after halftime, but his replacement did not fare much better, allowing six goals, which was just one shy of the mercy rule in that era.
Fast forward four years to his senior season against the same Athens Academy team, strides had been made by the GMC Prep boys soccer team. The game was shortened due to loss of light (no lights on GMC’s field at the time), but the Bulldogs played Athens Academy to a scoreless draw that was not without its tense moments.
“They were bearing down on our half the entire time,” Jaworski remembers.
He also remembers coming out of goal to stop an Athens Academy player on a breakaway. The ensuing collision resulted in Jaworski receiving a yellow card, and so he stood in goal to try and stop the penalty kick of his own making (rules now force yellow card recipients to leave the field for a short period of time). He stopped the PK, admittedly surprising himself a bit in the process, and punted the ball away, helping his team earn what felt almost as good as a victory.
“It was kind of that shining moment,” Jaworski said. “We went from losing to them 0-14 to a 0-0 game in four years, so that felt like huge progress.”
During high school, Jaworski had been persuaded to kick for the GMC Prep football team. He did so both his junior and senior years, and still holds the school record for longest field goal at 52 yards. He honed his craft in the offseason hoping to earn a kicking scholarship to college. Jaworski would ultimately choose to stay in Milledgeville and kick for coach Bert Williams and the GMC junior college football program for a season, one that saw the team finish as national runners-up. He set out to continue his kicking career at the Division I level, earning a preferred walk-on spot at Tulsa. Jaworski admits his head and his heart weren’t in it as there were things going on back home always fresh in his mind. He left after the spring to finish out his college degree at the University of Georgia as a traditional student.
All the while, Bob Jaworski stayed on to coach GMC Prep’s boys soccer team even though his son was no longer playing, often saying he would hand the program over to someone else once a player or group graduated, but he always found another class to latch on to. When Bobby came back to Milledgeville is when the itch to return to the game set in. He listened to his dad talk about going to practice or games and decided to volunteer his aid. Community coaches, those not formally employed by the school at which they coach, must meet a few requirements first before they’re allowed to take the field for liability reasons. So the younger Jaworski got that all in order and transitioned into the program in 2012. His dad stayed on to help with the transition before ultimately handing the whole thing over to his son.
The current Bulldogs’ coach described that first season a “whirlwind.”
“I just put them on the field and said go,” he said. “There were no tactics, there was no nothing. A lot of what I wanted to do was to own more possession and to work the ball more. That was a tough concept to get around the entire team. At that point, I remember being able to field eight or nine guys with true confidence in what they could do and there were two or three wild cards.”
That team went 7-8-1, missing the playoffs by two games. With a good senior class returning, the second year looked promising but got off to a rough 1-4 start. Jaworski began questioning himself, but necessity gave way to invention as a strategic adjustment helped the team win seven of its last eight. Any hope for continued improvement was squashed the next season though as the Bulldogs went just 1-14.
“I was second-guessing everything that was going on,” Jaworski said.
Jaworski’s fourth year is when the program’s current landscape began taking shape. This year’s seniors were in eighth grade at the time and were hungry for success. A scrimmage between the middle school, which included those eighth-graders that are now seniors, and the junior varsity yielded surprising results.
“I put my best team out there, but the middle school wound up beating what I had,” Jaworski said.
That group would not make that big of an immediate impact on wins and losses once they became freshmen (the team finished 3-10-1), but Jaworski did observe a shift. Teams that had handed his own blowout losses in previous years turned into one- or two-goal narrow defeats.
“It kind of felt like we were in the fight,” he said. “We weren’t just focusing on gameplay or tactics, it was more about what kind of foundation we wanted to set. We had to put everything together in order to have anything worthwhile down the road.”
The team’s recent history is well-known. In 2017 the Bulldogs finished 12-8, winning their first playoff game and getting to host the second round. Last year GMC Prep boys soccer went 17-3, once again winning their first-round game before narrowly losing in the second.
The program was undoubtedly on the right path but really shifted over into the express lane with the GHSA’s decision to split its Class A public and private schools into two different divisions. Jaworski doesn’t shy away from the fact that the change has helped his team get to this point, but the opportunity was in no way a given.
“The fact that they were able to focus and get here is a testament to them,” Jaworski said. “I thought we had an opportunity to get here eventually, but honestly I didn’t think it would be this fast. It’s almost like validation for everything that I've been doing as a coach.”
And how does it feel for Bob Jaworski to see not only a program he helped get off the ground but one he coached and handed over to his son, get the opportunity to play for a state championship?
“I’m obviously proud,” he said. “It’s been a long journey, so I hope our guys do well. It would be amazing to come out with a state championship, and I think it’s our time. These kids certainly have the talent, and they can pull it together.”
Jaworski’s Bulldogs will take on the Titans of Lake Oconee Academy at 7:30 p.m. tonight, inside Mercer University’s Five Star Stadium in Macon.