This year’s Lambert girls soccer team is the kind of group that can make a dominant run through the end of the season, outscoring opponents 25-0 over its last seven games on its way to a Class 7A championship matchup with Grayson.
It’s also the kind of group that can forget to bring soccer balls to practice.
The Longhorns are a team whose talent comes with almost overwhelming youth, with just three seniors - Daniela Conroy, Jordyn Ebery and Maddie Eddleman - and a starting 11 composed of mostly freshmen and sophomores.
So when those young players left the balls up by the locker room before the first two practices, the seniors were peeved, but also understanding.
Class 7A girls soccer state championship
Grayson vs. Lambert
When, where: Saturday, 5 p.m., at Walter H. Cantrell Stadium in Powder Springs.
“We thought the freshmen could assume, ‘Oh, the balls are by the door, I should bring them down,’” said Ebert, the team’s starting goalkeeper. “But no one assumed, and we didn’t tell them because we didn’t think we needed to, and then we didn’t have balls.”
Lambert’s youth shows itself in various other occasions: backtalk to coaches, which the older players have learned will not stand, and game strategy that comes with age and wisdom, like holding off on pace and attack with a lead late in a game.
Ebert and Eddleman, a midfielder, can sympathize, as the pair was the only two freshmen on Lambert’s varsity squad back in 2014. They remember feeling the intimidation that comes with youth and inexperience, and while they saw that in this year’s freshmen, it didn’t last long.
“I think at the very beginning they were (intimidated), but then they realized they kind of overpower us,” Ebert said.
“Especially with our leading scorer being a freshman, they know … as long as they behave, they can do what they want,” Eddleman said.
That scorer is forward Madison Haugen, who had a hat trick in the state semifinals against Mill Creek and whose 20 goals on the season have equaled the program record set by her sister, Emily. The Longhorns have also regularly gone to freshman forward Katelyn Castelli for offense.
I feel like (for them) it doesn’t have the same feeling we get in playoffs. Like, ‘Ooh, this is playoff time, this could be our last game.’ I feel like they don’t have that mentality yet, because they’ve never been knocked out of a playoff game.Jordyn Ebert, Lambert senior goalkeeper
Sophomores Reagan Donnelly and Brooke Schuyler have helped run the Longhorns’ midfield, and the defense, one of the most dominant units in the state this year, has seen plentiful contributions from freshman Sydney Hennessey and sophomore Ellie Prybylski.
Longhorns head coach Scott Luthart said this team compares favorably to the last squad that Lambert sent to the state finals, which lost 5-0 to Grayson in 2015. Luthart said the Longhorns have spread their production among more players this season, and while Ebert noted that this year’s team is less experienced, Eddleman said that it has better chemistry.
The inexperience hasn’t necessarily been a negative, either. Because the freshmen hadn’t experienced playoff soccer until this year, they didn’t have as strong of an idea of the games’ weight and significance.
“I feel like (for them) it doesn’t have the same feeling we get in playoffs,” Ebert said. “Like, ‘Ooh, this is playoff time, this could be our last game.’ I feel like they don’t have that mentality yet, because they’ve never been knocked out of a playoff game.”
That feeling of near-invulnerability has faded recently, though, after the team saw Lambert’s boys squad lose in the state quarterfinals last Saturday to Walton, bringing the idea of a playoff loss closer to reality.
“I kind of, for the first time, saw in them a bit of anxiety, maybe,” Luthart said. “We saw the finality of what it looks like if you don't continue to go through and you don't continue to get results.”
And this season could well be the last shot at high school soccer for some of the younger players. The U.S. Soccer Development Academy will open competition among girls teams in 2017, and to play on those teams, whose rigorous training and playing schedules aim to accelerate players’ development, players typically must leave their high school programs. Luthart expects that some players on this team’s roster won’t be back next year, even as they’ll still be attending Lambert.
But the shock of seeing how a season can also give the team an intensified resolve, as Eddleman and Ebert saw. Lambert is young, but the Longhorns know what Saturday’s game means, how it could give the program both its first-ever state championship and a satisfying dose of revenge for what happened in 2015.
“We were all like, ‘Yeah, that’s not happening to us,’” Ebert said. “We’re not done.”