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THE GRIND: West's A.J. Needham aims for strong end to action-packed high school career
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The GRIND: AJ Needham, West Forsyth High School Soccer

By: Bradley Wiseman

A.J. Needham started her high school soccer career at West Forsyth with a simple goal. She had gone to middle school at Otwell, so her high school classmates were all new. Needham just wanted to make some friends, and she happened to make the varsity team as a freshman.

“I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into,” Needham said.

The high school game was somewhat slower than club soccer, yes, but that was surpassed by everything else that came Needham’s way her first season with the Wolverines, back in 2016. During the region schedule, West played in four penalty kick shootouts – which many goalkeepers dread – and won three of them.

Then the Wolverines made the state playoffs and, despite carrying a younger than normal squad, kept winning all the way to the state finals, where they lost 2-1 to Lassiter.

“It set the expectations pretty high,” Needham said. “I don’t think any of us expected that to happen. We just kind of kept winning, and it’s kind of like a fairy tale.”

West hasn’t been able to pull off those exact results in Needham’s sophomore and junior seasons, but the Kennesaw State commit has still helped the Wolverines get some of the best results in the county, making the state playoffs both seasons and winning their first-round game on the road in 2018. And in her final high school season, Needham isn’t setting the team’s goals any lower than that.

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West Forsyth goalkeeper A.J. Needham deflects a strike in to the box Tuesday against Forsyth Central in the Lady Wolverines' 3-0 victory. - photo by Michael Chung
“We have a lot of talent, and I think the biggest struggle be to connect it all together,” she said. “But I think this group of girls has got it."

Soccer has always been Needham’s sport, and goalkeeper has always been her position. Her father was born and raised in England and played keeper, so with that and her above-average height and reach, keeper was the natural choice.

Needham’s strong, diverse skillset is an asset to the Wolverines, but just as much so is her status as one of the most experienced players in the county. That’s particularly helpful for West head coach Jason Galt, the third different head coach that Needham has played for at West.

“(She has) that time in the goal, being in those close games in the past,” Galt said. “And me not having to worry about her, I can focus on the rest of the team and know that the goal’s taken care of. It’s going to be in good hands with A.J. back there.”

It wouldn’t have been terribly surprising, though, if Needham had decided to sit her senior season out. She wasn’t among the raft of county players that joined the U.S. Soccer Development Academy club ranks last spring, taking them out of the high school soccer ranks, but she joined the DA program at United Futbol Academy this fall.

She didn’t stay long, though, leaving the team in time for the spring season. Needham will admit that high school soccer isn’t at the same level as club, but the friendships she’s formed in the scholastic ranks are just as valuable. In 2018, West’s Karson Rosenberger, now playing at Mercer, was the sole Division I signee from the county to play high school, and Needham saw that decision pay off for Rosenberger.

“Everybody that’s played has enjoyed it,” Needham said. “So that was definitely a factor in me playing this year.”

So was something that Needham has never done before: Play with her sister, Olivia, who’s a freshman goalkeeper. The siblings have never played together in club, due to their age difference. They still kick the ball around in the yard, though, and that’s where they get a break from the defense-first mindset, because someone has to play striker.

“We all like scoring,” Needham said. “It’s pretty competitive.”