Although they’ve reached their destination in vastly different ways, the Nation Ford boys’ and girls’ soccer teams are heading to the same place with similar plans on how to advance and keep their seasons alive.
The Lady Falcons went 13-8 this season while climbing into Maxpreps.com’s top 25 state ranking. The team was scheduled to host Maudlin Monday at 7 p.m. in the opening rounds of the playoffs (for results, go to fortmilltimes.com).
For the girls, success starts with a stingy defense, which often doubles in production by initiating its potent and widespread offense.
Early in the season, the Falcons switched from a 4-4-2 scheme to a 5-3-2. The move was two-fold: First, it allowed more freedom for up-field attackers such as key senior offensive contributors Emma Maddox, Brooke Ward and Michaela Sims and productive sophomores Emily Tobik, Courtney Wells and Jori Benton. It also further congested the middle of the field, allowing formidable defenders Ryan Richardson, Meagan Eastep and Rachel Smith more room to roam and less space to cover.
The switch paid off, as Nation Ford has surrendered just 29 goals in 21 games while going 5-2 in one-goal games.
That same defensive approach is similar to the boys’ recipe for success. The Falcons boys are in the midst of their best season since the school opened in 2007. They swept Fort Mill for the first time and added a sweep of Northwestern, beating their rivals for the first time in school history, the last win coming with just 30 seconds on the clock in overtime.
But that’s how the boys have played all season, running their record to 15-3-1 – by far the program’s best – and climbing to No. 8 in Maxprep’s state rankings.
“I feel like we had something special when we tied Irmo in our second game,” senior tri-captain and center midfielder Tyler Jarrett said.
“That set the stage for something special. That game told us that we could compete with anyone. Coach has been telling us all season that it’s a fine line – we can beat any team in the state, but we can also lose to anyone, so we have to give it our best every single game.”
The Falcons have heeded first-year coach Jonathan Jarrett’s advice. They’ve gone 8-2 in one-goal games, and have developed a workman’s mindset to go with it.
Spurred by Jarrett, fellow tri-captains Will Martin and Nick Tourville along with junior forward Kevin Garces, among many others, the Falcon boys have developed an approach that’s led to a productive season.
“We’ve been grinding out results,” said Martin, a sophomore defender.
“It hasn’t always been pretty, but we’ve kept grinding and it’s paid off. Even when we’re down we feel like we’re always going to get that one goal that we need. Against Northwestern we weren’t getting the goal all game, but it felt like it was coming. It came almost in stoppage time, so that was big for us and has given us a ton of confidence.”
The boys have allowed just 20 goals all season and, with their steady defense and opportunistic offense, feel like they can beat anyone in the state.
While the Lady Falcons can match the boys defensively, they have a different approach on offense where no player has scored more than Maddox’s 10 goals, but 12 players have tallied at least one score this year.
“Our defense is our core that holds us together, but that also is a big key to getting our offense going,” said Ward, a midfielder who leads the team with 10 assists.
“Having so many people who can score relieves the tension of having the pressure for one person to have to score. Having so many people who are capable lets us work to everyone’s feet to make plays and we can count on everyone to contribute.”
The team-first mentality is shared up and down the Lady Falcons roster as they have 11 seniors, none of whom are ready to play their final game.
Despite limping down the stretch with a pair of tough losses and just two wins in their last five games, the girls are confident in their chances.
“We have so many seniors on this team that nobody is ready to lose and we’re not going to let it happen,” said Richardson, a defender integral to the Falcon’s back line.
While the senior girls are determined to not lose again, the boys’ upperclassmen are basking in the glow of the program’s best season to date.
“This has been a blast to be a senior,” Jarrett said. “Last year was a big struggle, so it’s nice to end with a winning season and it’s brought back some of the love of the game.”
The enthusiasm is contagious as the boys have defeated six teams who were housed in the top 10 in the state rankings when the Falcons beat them. The buzz from those high-profile games is evident in the hallways around school, and it’s starting to intensify with each passing game. The enthusiasm surrounding the program has shown up in the game-day attendance, which has set school records this year.
“This year establishes us as someone who can compete with anyone,” Martin said. “Before we’d never beaten Northwestern and only beat Fort Mill once. To sweep those teams establishes us as a team that’s up and coming, but we still have something to prove.”
With the playoffs on the horizon, the red-hot boys are looking to continue their steady and strong play, which has produced six wins in their last seven games. The Falcons were scheduled to match up in the first round Monday with Dorman, a top 10 team in the state, but will open the postseason at home.
“Yeah, we’re playing a top 15 team no matter what,” Miller said, “but we have to get that first goal and hopefully we can get multiple goals. We get that first goal and grind it out until the end. That’s what we’ve done all year and what we’ll continue to do in the playoffs.”
That’s exactly the sentiment the girls share.
“We know we can beat anyone,” Ward said. “We have to stay positive and keep our heads straight. We know if we get scored on we can always come back, so we have the confidence that we can win every game.”