Sometimes, a program needs to take a step back before it takes a major step forward. The Grace Academy girls' soccer team reversed that pattern last week.
The Lady Golden Eagles claimed one of the most important victories in Gretchen Hammel's coaching tenure when they defeated ninth-ranked McMinn Central 3-2 last Tuesday but then had one of their biggest disappointments when they tied Sweetwater 1-1. A victory over the Lady Wildcats would have pressed Grace into a three-team tie with Boyd-Buchanan and McMinn Central, each with one league loss.
The Lady Golden Eagles, now 7-4-1 overall and 4-1-1 in District 5-A/AA, probably will settle into the third seed when the district tournament starts Oct. 15.
"It was the biggest blow of the season -- big-time," Hammel said of the Sweetwater tie. "We had so many opportunities, but it was like nothing went our way.
"We just made the road a lot more difficult and harder, but I think we can still come out on top."
Freshman Elizabeth Mouw, who leads Grace with 14 goals and nine assists, said the mix of high and low in one week may make the team better down the line.
"We thought the win over McMinn Central was pretty epic," she said. "Against Sweetwater, we thought we were the better team. It was just a heartbreaking loss, especially since they scored in the final two minutes, but our goal is the same -- to win district -- and we still think we're capable of doing that."
The team has gone through plenty of highs and lows already. The Lady Golden Eagles scored 35 goals in jumping out to a 4-0 start, but save for an 8-0 defeat of Tyner, they since have scored a total of eight times in going 2-4-1. That included a three-game losing streak in which they were outscored 9-0.
"I think it's been a gut check for us," senior captain Kelsey Hall said. "We beat those other teams so bad, but we hadn't played aggressive teams yet. We came to realize that we had to work harder in drills and practice how we were going to play."
Added senior Hannah Rogers: "Those first four games showed us that we had the potential of being good. There was no excuse for us to be losing the way we were."
With only a couple of games left in the regular season, Hammel feels the objectives are unchanged and the confidence boost gained from the win over McMinn Central, which will be the tournament's top seed, should pay dividends. Eleventh-ranked Boyd-Buchanan will be second and would face Grace if both advance to the district semifinals.
"I mean, we have a win over the No. 1 team in the district," Hammel said. "At some point, we knew were were going to be tested and that every game was a steppingstone and a chance for us to improve and get better.
"How I see it, it's made us a better team."
• Other district top spots have been determined as well.
East Hamilton, ranked eighth in the state in Class A/AA, is 7-6 overall and 5-0 in District 6. The Lady Hurricanes have won six of their last eight games and have been led by Chandler Smith's eight goals and six assists and Yinka Ladapo's six goals.
Second-ranked Chattanooga Christian (11-2-1, 3-0) claimed a 1-0 victory over third-ranked Notre Dame (4-7-2, 2-1) and will be 7-A/AA's top seed. The Lady Chargers likely will receive an automatic bye into the region semifinals, while Notre Dame and sixth-ranked Signal Mountain (5-2-1, 1-2) will battle for a spot in the region tournament on Oct. 18.
In District 5-AAA, fifth-ranked Soddy-Daisy (10-2-2, 5-0) has claimed the district's top seed. McMinn County (9-6, 4-1) will be the No. 2 seed if it defeats or ties Ooltewah (5-6, 1-2) next Monday. Cleveland (6-6-2) is 3-2 in the district.
Baylor, top-ranked in Division II-AA, is 11-1 overall and 4-0 in the East/Middle region, tied with fourth-ranked Father Ryan (9-3-3, 4-0). Third-ranked GPS (8-5, 3-2) is fourth in the region, behind Battle Ground Academy (7-2-2, 3-1-1).
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com or 423-757-6311. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/gh3sports.