The Adairsville girls soccer team wasn't supposed to be in this position, hosting a first-round matchup in the Class 3A state tournament. Nobody expected it — not their head coach or even their star goalkeeper.
Having lost several seniors — including the 2018 Daily Tribune News honorees for top forward (Emily Collum), midfielder (Gillian Johnson) and defender (Molly Carter) — the Tigers would have been expected to compete for the final playoff spot in the incredibly competitive Region 6-AAA. But few could have forecasted that Adairsville would play a de facto region championship game on the final day of the regular season.
The Tigers came up short in that contest, falling to Calhoun by a 4-0 score, but finishing as runner-up still grants them a home match in the opening round of state. However, that won't be any easy task with eighth-ranked Lumpkin County coming to town for a 6 p.m. kickoff Tuesday at Tiger Valley.
"We're going to have to play defensive, and then just see what kind of opportunities present themselves," Adairsville head coach David Sexauer said. "We'll have to see what this team is all about, but they have a strong reputation for being an aggressive team that's fast and highly skilled. We know we have our work cut out for us. ...
"A lot of teams have gotten blown out by these people. They've been beating teams by six, seven, eight, 10 goals. We'll see if we're the next one in that line, or if we can keep it closer and make a game of it."
Lumpkin County doesn't have the most eye-popping record, as the visitors enter with a 10-6 overall mark. That being said, most of those defeats have come against high-level competition. Lumpkin County has lost three of its past four games, but those negative results came against 3A's second-ranked Dawson County, the classification's No. 6 team, Jackson County, and Class 5A's third-ranked team in Buford.
"They've played a really strong schedule," Sexauer said. "They've played really good opponents. They have a few losses, but they're battle-hardened. They don't really have a weakness. They're fast; they have a lot of depth on their bench; and they have a speed up top."
Adairsville (10-4-1) has quite a bit of speed spearheading its attack, as well. Cat Wheeler enters the contest having tied the school's record for most goals by a sophomore, matching the 27 tallies Collum racked up three years ago.
Outside of Wheeler, freshman Kaylee Jordan is the team's second-leading scorer with eight goals. Nobody on the Tigers has more than a handful of assists, accentuating the team aspect of this year's squad.
"We probably scored less than half the [number of] goals that we did last year," Sexauer said. "We still found a way to win the games we needed to, but we are just young, when it comes to having a lot of playmakers. We have a lot of quality kids, working hard together, and they can win doing that."
Heading into last week, Adairsville had been winning quite a bit. Injuries have struck at the wrong time, though, helping lead to a heartbreaking overtime loss to Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe on senior night and the aforementioned road defeat at Calhoun.
Wheeler was one of the injured stars, forcing her to miss the final game of the regular season. Sexauer expects to have a full complement of players, although not everyone will be at full-strength.
"We're healthy enough to play all those girls," Sexauer said. "We're not 100% in a couple of positions, but they're healthy enough to play. Those injuries allowed us to look at a couple of girls and move some girls around to make up whatever shortages we had at different positions. We have the girls back, but we also learned a little bit about what other girls can do."
Despite the recent setbacks, Sexauer reiterated to his players how much the team has achieved this season — against even his own expectations.
"Honestly, I thought this might be the year we would have to rebuild," he said. "We moved right past that mindset and right into being competitive."
Sexauer wasn't the only one within the Adairsville program who questioned what the Tigers could accomplish this year. Senior goalie Havyn Isaac didn't think she and her teammates would be in this spot with so many sophomores and freshmen needing to step up.
But with just three seniors on the team, the young nucleus has matured beyond their years to help send Isaac and Co. out with one final playoff run.
"I'm not going to lie, going into the season, I had my doubts, as well," Isaac said. "... Man, did we even prove myself wrong. I knew coming in, I think we'll make it to the playoffs, but we'll have a hard time getting there. We blew that expectation out of the water."
One downside to Adairsville effectively overachieving this year is that the Tigers will still bring a relatively inexperienced group into the postseason. It's possible nerves, particularly in the first few minutes, get the best of some of the players.
That's where the team's handful of veterans, especially Isaac, will be asked to hold down the fort until the young players get their legs under them.
"We're all super excited, because for a lot of these girls, it's something they've never experienced," Isaac said. "The nerves are there for some of them. For us older girls, we're just going to go in, win or lose, we're just going to do the best we can. ... We're just going to go out there and do what we're told, what we're coached and what we know we can do."
Whether that ends up being enough to advance to the Sweet 16 to likely face No. 1-ranked Westminster is unknown, but given what has transpired so far in 2019, it really doesn't matter. Any way you look at things, this has been a successful season for the Tigers.
"I'm so proud of our team, because we're so young," Sexauer said. "For us to even find a way to rise up, pull down the second spot and secure ourselves into the playoffs is a phenomenal goal for us. We're very pleased with who we are, despite going into a difficult match."