The Girls Preparatory School soccer team outscored its local competition 40-6 last fall and advanced to the Division II-AA semifinals in its latest title push, but the talent-loaded Bruisers know the road to what they hope is the program's third TSSAA state championship will be challenging.
It will also be anything but normal, and that's already true with the 2020 season yet to start.
With the coronavirus pandemic altering practice rules for girls' soccer programs and prohibiting contact between players, so far they have focused on skills and fitness while together this offseason.
"Last year we would have been in the middle of UTC team camp, and Monday we would have started GPS team camp, which is two-a-days," Bruisers coach Patrick Winecoff said. "Then the next week would be the first week of preseason."
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's state of emergency order issued and extended amid the pandemic runs through Aug. 29 and has delayed the start to the seasons for girls' soccer and football in the Volunteer State. The order includes a shutdown of contact sports, although college and professional teams are exempt.
The TSSAA Board of Control on Wednesday approved a contingency plan for girls' soccer season to begin Sept. 7 if the state of emergency expires. However, Gov. Lee could still grant an exemption for all high school sports to resume without delay.
Until then, the Bruisers and other TSSAA girls' soccer teams will do what they can.
"The girls really like playing and being together," Winecoff said. "They just got through this lockdown and are excited to see each other and be at the field together. They certainly miss not being able to prepare as they normally do, but they understand what's going on and the rules. Hopefully sooner rather than later, the contact ban will be lifted and they can play again."
Schedules are up in the air for many teams, and especially for a private school powerhouse such as GPS, a six-time state finalist program that won titles in 2014 and 2018 and looks for challenges outside of the area from other top teams in Tennessee.
The Bruisers were supposed to host Bearden, Maryville and Stewarts Creek this fall, but they do not know if those opponents will be allowed or want to travel anymore. Teams hope the governor provides an exemption for high school sports to resume as originally planned, which would have to happen before Aug. 10 to meet that timeline.
"If we start September 7, we would only have seven days of contact before our first match," Winecoff said. "You have to be really careful if that's the case because injuries could easily pile up. Most of these girls haven't had any contact since February. Most of the time girls play over the summer and gear up gradually for the season, and that's not the case this year."
GPS, which went 17-3 in 2019 and won the DII-AA East Region championship, has been creative in using dummies, marked zones and cones to practice shooting, dribbling and other skills on the practice field this summer.
The Bruisers lost just two starters from last season, and their top players include team captains Hunter McVay and Sydney Morris as well as standout scorer Ashley Grant, who has committed to Wofford and is part of a loaded senior class. Sophomore Kennedy Ball is one of the area's top all-around talents and has started since eighth grade.
However, their coach knows success this season will be about more than having talent on the roster.
"We have been working on some weak points of our game where we wouldn't be able to get our girls as many repetitions normally," Winecoff said. "We are moving forward, but not necessarily in a tactical way as we usually would.
"Whoever can navigate this season and survive the ups and downs will have a good shot to do really well. There is a lot of adversity these girls are going to have to handle this year, and we are preparing to the best of our ability."