Class AAAAAA Girls Soccer State Championship
West Forsyth (16-4-1) vs. Lassiter (19-1)
When: Today, 5 p.m.
Where: Five Star Stadium at Mercer University in Macon
West Forsyth soccer coach Jason Bayush knows his job involves stress on and off the field. For his team’s state quarterfinal match against Walton he worried about the SATs his players had to take in the morning, as well as the prom they had that evening. On Tuesday, facing two-time state champion Harrison in the state semifinals, the network of roads from Forsyth to west Cobb seemed like a logistical nightmare for a school night. The team left earlier than usual, and ended up having what he thought might have been too much free time before the game.
While the Lady Wolverines waited for their first crack at Harrison’s field, they were put up in the school’s football weight room. Bayush knew Harrison would be a tough task and quietly assessed the gameplan—meanwhile, his players were distracted by the weight sets they were temporarily using as seats.
“Some of them wanted to lift weights,” Bayush said.
It was no surprise to Bayush that, before the two biggest games in West’s soccer history that his players were fine talking about tests, worrying about prom makeup and putting themselves through brief weightlifting competitions.
West’s players are equally care-free and prepared, equally spontaneous and consistent, and know when and when not to take themselves too seriously. When the Lady Wolverines (16-4-1) beat Harrison after two dramatic goals in the final 20 minutes, junior defender Carsen Parker exclaimed she was going to sleep in extra early. Another player behind her shouted, “I don’t even know what this feeling is right now.” Goalkeeper A.J. Needham, one of the team goofballs, made sure to dab in the team photo.
This is who West is—this is the team that has gone from a losing record in 2015 to one win away from the team's first state championship in school history, which only dates back to 2007. Even with five players who played on the basketball team that went to the state semifinals just a few months ago, they’ve managed to keep their perspective in check.
As junior Brooke Pirkle, who scored the winning goal on Tuesday, said: “This our chance at redemption.” But she prefaced that meaningful statement with her assessment of how she felt after a chippy match. She joked, “luckily I’m still standing.”
Needham, with a grin, transformed herself into the persona of a tenured professional athlete. When asked if she ever feared an equalizing goal as her defense battled on its end of the field for the final 15 minutes, she raised one eyebrow: “We knew we had it. It was never in doubt.”
“These girls have kind of taught me to let things go. To let them be who they are. To let them have fun. That has been a shift in my coaching style, and honestly it’s made it fun,” Bayush said.
Bayush has bounced from coaching gig to coaching gig—a jack of all trades for sure—after 20 years of playing soccer. He coached football and baseball in Michigan before taking an assistant coaching job at South Forsyth, then he coached volleyball and swimming. When he had the opportunity to coach soccer, his friends kept reminding him this was his sport—the one he needed to be coaching.
But Bayush says that one day later in his career he’d love to be an athletic director. He thinks his experience in multiple sports has prepared him for that, but understanding the minds and actions of teenage kids has been something that has eluded him.
Possibly until now.
“As you go on, as I’ve gone on, you develop different philosophies for different things,” Bayush said. “You get to see a lot of different coaching styles and learn to develop your own. It’s always a process. I don’t try to do things a set way I guess.”
One thing Bayush did do was focus this past offseason on getting his team to become a cohesive unit on the field. At the same time, he worried about the usual hurdles that come with coaching youngsters—namely, the trouble they might get in. He’s not had to address the latter.
“These girls are awesome,” Bayush said. “They don’t get into trouble. They’re always hanging around each other, so they’re close. You couldn’t ask for more.”
When West entered the season, Bayush was wondering how he’d replace midfieler Landen Bowman, who moved on to her scholarship on the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s soccer team. In came Kylie Gazza, a tall, strong forward—and a freshman.
The Lady Wolverines added Needham in goal, and assistant coach Michael Carter used his expertise as a goalkeeping specialist to develop her.
But the Lady Wolverines were coming off a 7-9 season, and Lambert and South Forsyth were destined to battle it out atop the Region 6-AAAAAA standings. Then Johns Creek got in the mix. Suddenly Region 6 was the center of Georgia’s high school soccer universe, with all four teams mentioned once ranked in the top-five.
West beat South 2-1. They beat Johns Creek 1-0. Then they beat Chattahoochee 5-0 to clinch the region championship. After falling to Lambert in PKs on senior night, the Lady Wolverines never swayed—they were on a roll, and a state championship run looked like a real possibility.
“The thing is, with these girls, nothing outside the realm of soccer affects them, but they also find so much comfort on the field. They just go out there and do it. They don’t get too high or too low when they’re playing,” Bayush said.
West went from a losing team to a contender, including an 8-1 region mark. However, their biggest win to this point might be one that wasn’t last weekend, or Tuesday, but March 31—right before spring break.
Despite the fact the kids were about to have a week off from school, the Lady Wolverines managed to knock off Lassiter with a 2-1 victory.
“We were going up against the top team in the state and had a lot to play for, and the girls showed up,” Bayush said. “They liked to play the ball over the top, so we kept the ball on the ground, didn’t allow free balls and dug in on defense.”
West faces Lassiter again today, but this time a championship is on the line.
Bayush isn’t surprised. The transition from battling for a .500 record and becoming a contender wasn’t nearly as sudden as it may seem.
“When I took this job I wanted to make sure that if we wanted to be the best, we played the best,” Bayush said. “In the first couple of years we’ve taken lumps, but at the end of the day it improves you. If you’ve not had a winning program it’s great to face winning teams and set your sights on that. Aim to be like them.
“At one point last year I thought we really were good, we just needed to be cohesive and come together. We focused on the offseason on coming closer and closer, there’s never been a rift between teammates.”
Bayush stopped himself just for a moment. Okay, maybe he is a bit surprised.
“Looking back at everything these girls have accomplished, it really is truly amazing.”