At times, it's almost as though girls' high school soccer programs in northwestern Georgia are fighting a losing battle. While region crowns are still attainable, the bigger picture -- state success -- seems increasingly difficult with the level of competition elsewhere.
For example, Heritage finished second in Region 7-AAA last season, its only blemish a 6-1 defeat to Allatoona, which lost 10-0 to eventual state champion St. Pius X in the state semifinals. Heritage's Lady Generals lost 3-0 in the first round to Atlanta-area school Riverwood.
Area Class AA girls' teams Calhoun and Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe had their seasons end in the first round of the playoffs as well.
"When you look at it, Atlanta schools have such a larger pool to pick from," LFO coach Jonathan Schneider said. "We only have the East Ridge and North River organizations, which equals a much smaller pool. Then you have players in Atlanta that play the sport year-round, and any time you have players that are just playing soccer all year, plus when they play for the school, they're generally going to be better than the players that just pick the sport up."
The St. Pius X team a couple of seasons ago sent nine of its 11 starters to NCAA Division I universities. To put that in perspective, the Baylor girls' team that won its second consecutive Tennessee championship last fall and finished third nationally is sending six of its eight seniors to Division I schools.
First-year Heritage coach Stacy Dunfee is taking aim on Allatoona and will go from there.
"I think we could play them a lot closer. Our goal is to beat them this season," she said. "Our concentration is a better showing in the state playoffs. When you get down to Atlanta, there's more people and more resources, and it's kind of hard to be competitive, but I think we're getting there."
Schneider will be in his first season in his second stint as the Lady Warriors' head coach. He feels that Courtney Born and Maryann Morgan could be a pair of the better goal scorers in the area.
"The best thing we can do is keep interest in our program and build on it," he said.
Dunfee's Lady Generals return all 11 starters from last season's 15-2 team. They have only two seniors and will be led by junior Blair Harden, their leading scorer in 2011, as well as sophomores Courtney and Cassidy Bell, junior sweeper Kansas Carpenter and junior Katelyn Beekman.
Dunfee coached all of the players in middle school. She then spent a year at LaFayette before taking over for Stacy Pickens, who stepped down after 15 seasons as head coach.
"It's been a little different, but since I've coached most of these girls before, it's been a pretty smooth transition," Dunfee said. "We changed our defense around and added a sweeper and changed our midfield, but everything's been smooth for us so far."
She feels that even though the battle deep into the postseason might be an uphill climb, a team primarily made up of sophomores and juniors might be equipped to do it.
"What we have to focus on is playing faster, anticipating the next move and letting the ball do the work," she said. "We have skilled players but not a lot of speed, so once we can start doing that, it'll pick the girls' game up and we'll start seeing more success."