Last season, the West Forsyth boys’ soccer team learned the lesson of physical soccer at the least opportune time. After 17 games and three months, the Wolverines played Collins Hill in the first round of the state tournament and were overwhelmed in a 4-1 loss. The Eagles had skill and height, a combination West encountered only too late.
So Ahmed Gathing’s first task when promoted from assistant to head coach during the offseason was clear: Upgrade the Wolverines’ schedule to better prepare them for the kind of physically-imposing teams they could face in the state tournament.
"This year it was let’s go play anybody and everybody and try to get us better," Gathing said.
The schedule has been a gauntlet and the results have been mixed. West has faced five ranked teams in Georgia and one from Alabama, and there are four more ranked opponents left on its schedule, including Friday’s game at No. 4 Lambert (8-2-0) at 7:55 p.m., in a crucial county and Region 6-AAAAAA matchup.
The Wolverines enter the game 4-5-1 overall but 3-0-0 in the region, a game ahead of the Longhorns.
"I’d say it’s the biggest game this season," West senior forward John Newman said, "because it’s in county. They’re the toughest competitors in the region as well. If we win, we control the region."
Indeed, West feels it has come to the point in its schedule where it needs a marquee victory over a ranked opponent.
On the one hand, the Wolverines have showed remarkable promise in how competitive they have been against upper echelon programs.
Aside from a 5-1 loss to Lassiter on Feb. 14, West has lost by one goal to Class AAAAAA’s No. 2 Walton (1-0), Class AAAAAA’s No. 3 Duluth (4-3), Class AAA’s No. 1 St. Pius X (5-4), Class AAAAAA’s No. 1 Brookwood (3-2) and tied Auburn (Ala.), 1-1, the No. 7 team in Class AAAAAA in Alabama.
At first, the close calls gave the Wolverines confidence, much needed for a team replacing its leading scorer, virtually it entire defense, two new goalkeepers while installing Gathing’s new system.
Over the course of the challenging stretch, Newman emerged as West’s top scoring threat. The senior has scored 21 goals in 10 games as he’s embraced the move from midfield to forward. Newman said he got faster and stronger during the offseason, but he’s also benefitted from improved team chemistry.
"It might just be a combination of team chemistry and I have gotten a lot better," Newman said. "I think my skill set is about the same as last year. I’ve learned some new things, but I also think I’m faster and stronger. I’m just concentrating a lot more."
Meanwhile, juniors Yannick Brassard and Hunter James moved on defense from center back to outside. Sophomore Matt Adams emerged at outside fullback. Junior goalkeepers Jacob Allen and Alex Jue gradually developed. Gathing’s system started to feel more natural.
Despite a disadvantage in height, West learned to cut down on fouls, prevent teams from running set plays and embrace the role of the underdog. The Wolverines had leads against Duluth and St. Pius X.
"It says that we can match up with almost anyone in the state," Gathing said. "I feel like we’re starting to gel. As opposed to last year, when we went to Collins Hills … it was kind of a shock to our system. Now we aren’t shocked anymore."
But confidence has started to give way to frustration. Moral victories were nice, up to a point.
"No one will remember that we were one goal out," West senior Marcus Bray said. "They’ll remember that we didn’t beat [ranked teams]."
And so Friday’s game at Lambert offers West its next chance to make a statement that its ready to take the next step to be considered a true contender..
"We want to be able to say that we beat one of those top teams," Bray said, "so that’s what Friday is all about."