Even as starters on previous Baylor School soccer teams, Gracey Prater and Marci Carter generally have avoided the spotlight. This season the attention has shifted somewhat from the program overall, but expectations never changed and the Lady Red Raiders are right back where they've been so many times before -- among the semifinalists set to compete for a state title.
Graduation and injuries decimated the Baylor program over the past six months. The team that finished the 2011 season with its second straight Division II-AA state championship and ranked third nationally lost seven seniors. Then before the 2012 season started, the Lady Raiders lost senior midfielder Grace Stewart, who has committed to Middle Tennessee State University, to a torn ACL.
The Lady Raiders had so many players out at one point that they were forced to cancel matches with McMinn Central and Notre Dame to prepare for their region schedule.
Yet now they're right where they want to be.
"Collectively, I think we've played pretty well," Prater said. "We lost so many players off last year that a lot of people wrote us off. To see that we're back makes me proud of those who have stepped in.
"We haven't been in rhythm a lot of times this year because of injuries, but we've gained confidence once we started getting players back."
Prater is a three-year starter and four-year letterman who is second on the team in both goals and assists with five each. Carter, who will continue her career at the University of Pittsburgh next year, has been on the varsity for five seasons. She said the early part of the season was rough.
"It was very different," she said. "We had to approach it with a lot more patience. Some of the girls didn't know how we want to defend, and how we want to play, so it took a lot of teaching and patience where in other years everybody just already knew.
"The team has been better than I hoped, and it's been fun watching the team grow this year."
Carter, who has three goals and eight assists, said she's become more of a vocal leader this year, while Prater agreed that she also adjusted to a new role.
"In past years, we had players like McKenzie [Thomas], Peyton [Thomas] and Chloe [Brackett]," Prater said. "This year, I knew I had to step up and be more aggressive in the attacking third."
The Lady Red Raiders (11-3-3), ranked fourth in Division II-AA, received a pleasant surprise when third-ranked Father Ryan defeated No. 1 St. Agnes in a state quarterfinal last week. The Lady Irish beat an injury-depleted Baylor 2-1 earlier in the season, and Friday's rematch gives the local squad an opportunity for revenge.
"We were pretty shocked," Prater said. "In the past, it's always been St. Agnes, St. Agnes, St. Agnes; they've been so much of a powerhouse. Father Ryan is a good team, though. We're happy to get to play them again.
Said Carter: "We get a chance to show our real team now."
Should Baylor get past Father Ryan on Friday, another rematch could loom in Saturday's state championship match -- against Chattanooga rival GPS, which faces Harpeth Hall in the other semifinal. But that's not something the Lady Raiders want to think about at this point.
"Right now, we're only looking to get the win on Friday," Prater said.
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com or 423-757-6311. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.