Lambert senior defender Casey Baker has known one constant over her four years of varsity soccer. While the Lady Longhorns’ playoff results have fluctuated between disappointing and dominant, they have always authored one memorable upset victory of a team more highly regarded because of its history or talent or both.
It started with a 2-1 victory over St. Pius X in 2011, the eventual Class AAA champions. There was the 1-0 victory over Pope, the Lady Greyhounds’ only regular season loss in 2012. Last season, it was a 2-1 victory over Parkview who went on to win the Class AAAAAA championship.
This season? That signature victory has been missing for Lambert though it had opportunities against Parkview, Starr’s Mill and Walton. Instead, the regular season was a topsy-turvy ride with new players and injuries and a last-gasp run to reach the state playoffs.
So here is the latest chance, a meeting with No. 1-ranked Grayson (17-0-1) in the first round of the Class AAAAAA tournament.
"I know the odds are all against us," Baker said, "but we’ve just been working really hard. We definitely think if anybody can beat them, we can."
"We’ve overcome so much adversity this year that I think we can do it," junior Bailey Frederking said. "It’s just a big challenge."
Lambert’s challenges started before the season even began. The first one – replacing five seniors, all of whom were three- or four-year starters for the Lady Longhorns and are now playing college soccer. The transfers of seniors Delaney Fechalos and Taylor Kemmeling from Blessed Trinity helped. Fechalos signed with Georgia, Kemmeling signed with Louisiana-Lafayette and both bolstered Lambert’s offense.
Then there was what to do with three open spots on defense. When Lambert’s starting center back defender tore her ACL the first game of the season, Luthart moved Fechalos into that position, the one she’s been recruited to play at Georgia, but found the offense suffered. He adjusted again, moving Fechalos up and dropping Baker from forward to center back.
Fechalos provided Lambert with some offensive punch. Baker gave the Lady Longhorns a steady, experienced leader on defense to mix with sophomores Evan Bowland, Riley Geran, Shannon Lilly and junior Kat Matthews.
"For me, that’s the turning point of our season," Luthart said.
Along the way, Lambert dealt with injuries to sophomore Keely Cartrett (fractured foot), Fechalos (back), Frederking (concussion) and Lilly (concussion). They dealt with disappointing region losses to Centennial, Chattahoochee and South Forsyth that jeopardized the Lady Longhorns’ playoff chances.
"That’s when it set in that we can’t make the playoffs just by going through the motions," Baker said.
Luthart never worried about the team’s chemistry off the field. He called the group "one of the sweetest, most coachable, kind, caring group of kids you’d ever get to work with." Sometimes, Luthart said, that quality didn’t serve the Lady Longhorns well on the field.
But as the urgency of the season intensified, Luthart said, so did the team’s play. Despite all the adjustments and ailments, Lambert rallied down the stretch to win its final four games, including three straight shutouts to end the season.
As Luthart scouted Grayson and Parkview, the Lady Longhorns’ other potential first round opponent, toward the end of the season, he got word it would be Grayson.
Luthart sent a text to his team: "It’s Grayson. Who’s in?"
He soon was inundated with texts from players eager for the challenge.
"The girls are so bought in right now it’s ridiculous," Luthart said.
Grayson has history (a state championship in 2007) and talent (five Division I commitments or signees), and Lambert’s players and Luthart are well acquainted with both.
Luthart opened the Grayson boys’ soccer program in 2001, led the Rams to a co-state championship in 2004 and was an assistant on the Lady Rams’ team that won the state title with current Lambert boys’ head coach Chris Wilson at the helm.
Baker has played with several of Grayson’s players on the club level. Frederking said she’s played with some since she was 7 years old. They know all about Lady Rams sophomores Ella Stevens and Jennifer Westendorf who are committed to Duke and Notre Dame, respectively, and played on the U.S. Under-17 Girls’ National Team.
"They’re worthy of a No. 1 ranking," Luthart said.
A year ago, Lambert was in Grayson’s situation. The Lady Longhorns were highly-ranked and a No. 1 seed but got upset by North Gwinnett.
Now, Lambert (11-6) is the fourth-seed, a spot usually relegated for teams considered as an after-thought in the bigger picture of state tournament contenders.
That just provides the Lady Longhorns with another chance for the memorable moment they’ve been so used to.
"I think if we all play like a team," Frederking said, "we’re a hard team to beat."