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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Lady Red Wolves head coach Luke Winter watches his players with assistant coach Elisha Fry during a team scrimmage at the UTC Sports Complex Friday, May 21, 2021.

There was only one way for the Chattanooga Lady Red Wolves to finish their final season in the Women's Premier Soccer League — as champions.

A year from now, the club will be a part of the new USL W League, as it was recently announced as one of the eight founding members. But there was also a conference title in the current environment to take care of, and the club faced a daunting road to make that happen, with three matches against the same opponent in a five-day span — including one in which The Lady Red Wolves were missing a combined 26 players (from the main squad and the U21 team). That left just 16 available players for their semifinal match.

But every so often the market has a way of correcting itself, and the final tally wound up with the Lady Red Wolves finishing in the same place they were in 2019, with the Southeast Conference title on its way out of the league.

"Whatever was put in front of this team, they did it and did it professionally," head coach Luke Winter said recently. "The team has always done so well, but there's a core group of girls and then there's always talented girls that want to join and be around that."

Winter drew some similarities between his current team and the team that brought him to the Scenic City, the Chattanooga Football Club.

"That was a special group of seven, eight, nine guys that got brought in. When they lost that, it changed," Winter said of his former club. "Right now, the women's team has that. They have that group of committed core players and I'm just lucky to work with them."

The championship ended a whirlwind weekend for Winter, whose wife Erica gave birth to their second child Ledger Eric Winter on the Thursday of the semifinal match. Friday the Winters came home from the hospital, which gave him enough time to prepare for the Lady Red Wolves' championship match on Sunday in Nashville, which Chattanooga won 2-1 over the Rhythm. Hannah Tillett — who plays at the University of Tennessee — was named Most Valuable Player of the tournament, with a goal and an assist in the two matches.

Due to COVID concerns when the schedule was being made earlier in the calendar year, the season ended with the conference championships. But it was a great way for the team to go out.

"You look at how it ended, and it's so nice because American sports aren't built to end on a high. Very few teams get to do that," Winter said. "We would have loved to go to a national tournament, but it's so nice to have that high and have that triumphant feeling at the end of the season. But then you look back at the whole thing and there was down, there was frustration, there was a little bit of everything and consolation came together at the end.

"It was just amazing for the team and amazing for me to have a baby that same week. It was special."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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