Westminster, the top-ranked girls soccer team in Class AAA, begins a rugged closing stretch of the regular season when it travels to Gatlinburg, Tenn., this weekend for three matches in two days against some of the nation’s top teams.
The highlight of the Smoky Mountain Cup for the Wildcats will come at 12:40 p.m. Saturday, when they take on South Carolina’s J.L. Mann, the No. 1 team nationally in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America rankings. J.L. Mann is 16-0 this season, including a 2-1 victory against Harrison, the No. 1 team in Georgia’s Class AAAAAA.
On Friday, Westminster will face Oklahoma’s Edmond North (No. 7 in the NSCAA’s Region IV rankings) and Delaware’s Padua Academy (No. 18 nationally). Padua Academy features Emilia Ryjewski, a Seton Hall signee who has scored seven goals in the team’s first three games.
“We were the first team on the girls’ side to commit to the Gatlinburg tournament,” Westminster coach Clark Meyer said. “When I was making the schedule, I figured that they would be competitive games, but I didn’t expect to get the kind of competition that we got. That’s a bonus, that’s great, we’re excited. But in my mind, when I was thinking about A-level teams and B-level teams and trying to get the right mix, I figured that these would be a mix of A and B. But they all look really strong.”
Westminster (10-1 and No. 14 in the NSCAA national poll) will conclude the regular season with games against Pope (Class AAAAAA No. 5), Greater Atlanta Christian (AAA No. 2) and Marist (AAAA No. 1) before beginning the playoffs on April 25. The Wildcats will be going for their fourth state championship in five years and 11th overall.
“We’re as talented a team as we’ve been in my 20 years here, but we haven’t quite jelled the way I know that we can, and that’s only going to happen by playing top teams,” Meyer said. “The girls enjoy playing at this sort of level, and we’re excited to match up against them. We could go 0-6 [in the remaining games]. I’d be somewhat surprised, but it wouldn’t be out of the question. This is a tough closing schedule for us.”
Meyer called versatile and speedy Delaney Graham, leading scorer Allison Miller, defensive midfielder Sydney Simmons and center back Ella Shamburger the spine of the team, but he is still working to get the right pieces put together.
“We’re still figuring out that the best 11 at any given time may not be your best 11 players,” Meyer said. “It comes down to the fit that different-style players have with each other, and we’re still trying to figure out which players fit in which holes to get the most effective lineup that we can. But we’re getting there. I feel like our game against Pace Academy last Friday [a 4-0 victory], that was the first time I really feel like we started to click. We ended up kinda strolling across the finish line in a game I expected to be much, much tougher. But they just put it all together, and we’re hoping that means that we’re peaking at the right time.”
*National rankings: Peachtree Ridge, the No. 1 Class AAAAAAA team in the most recent Score Atlanta rankings, is also the top Georgia team in the NSCAA national rankings of spring teams. The Lions, ranked No. 11, are joined in the top 25 by Georgia teams Westminster (No. 14) and Whitewater (No. 19). Peachtree Ridge also leads six Georgia teams in the NSCAA Region II rankings of teams from Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. The Lions are No. 2 in the region, followed by No. 3 Westminster, No. 4 Whitewater, No. 6 Columbus, No. 7 Marist and No. 8 St. Pius.