Waynesville Middle soccer finishes runner-up in conference

Jun. 1—It was a season to remember on the field for Waynesville Middle School girls soccer.

The team finished second in the Blue Ridge Conference with a record of 9-3-1, falling in the conference championship game, but having a remarkable road to get to that point.

Head Coach Bethany Gardner was in her first year leading the program after two years as an assistant.

"I was super excited about it," Gardner said. "I already knew a couple of girls who were on the team the last couple of years. But it was a challenge knowing the skills we had with the girls from last year and trying to figure out where to put them."

Gardner had spent the previous two seasons under Coaches Ray Sugg and Amanda Wells.

"In the beginning, it was really intimidating, especially trying to fill Coach Amanda Wells's shoes," Gardner said.

The road to the conference runner-up finish began in tryouts. Last year's team was eighth-grader-heavy, leaving this team with a handful of holes to fill.

"During tryouts, I wasn't sure how it was going to go because everyone was so young," Gardner said.

One player went from a manager last season to a key starting contributor on the defense for the Mounties.

The jump from manager to key player showed that hard work was going to be key for the Mounties.

"Every position is an earned position," Gardner said. "She knew she wanted to play and she worked really hard to be able to play."

Having such a young team didn't slow down their progress, however.

"Their grit and their perseverance being so young was really cool to watch," Gardner said.

Gardner said the girls were "super coachable," making the journey to the conference final even more rewarding.

Part of that was finding where everyone needed to be at on the field.

"Once we found the placement for each person, it was rewarding to see all of that come together," Gardner said.

Throughout the regular season, Waynesville scored 46 goals, while allowing just 14.

In the playoffs, Waynesville and Macon County met in the quarterfinals. The two had split their regular season series 1-1, but it was the Mountaineers claiming the victory in the quarterfinals.

"That gave us the boost of confidence going into the semifinals against Polk," Gardner said. "We knew that was going to be a tough one. That side of the conference is always tough."

In the semi-finals against one-loss Polk County, the Mountaineers were locked in a battle.

"That game, I've never seen them play as hard as they did," Gardner said.

Waynesville had a 1-0 lead going into halftime, but Polk County tied it up late in the game.

Overtime saw the score stay level, forcing the game to a penalty shootout, where the Mounties won the game.

"That was probably the best game I've seen the girls play," Gardner said. "To see them win it in a penalty shootout was so exciting."

While the championship game didn't go the Mounties' way, the loss didn't define the entire year.

"We knew it was going to be a huge challenge," Gardner said. "It ended up being a harder loss than we expected, but one thing I wanted to instill in them was that was just one game and it didn't define their season."

The run to the title game was truly a magical one for the Mountaineers, however.

"Ending up second in the conference with a team of girls that hardly played last season, it's pretty cool going into next season knowing we have that foundation to build on," Gardner said.

To Gardner, the season meant so much more than winning the playoffs or any of the results on the field.

"I told them from the very beginning that a winning season is huge for me, but even bigger is to see them come out with more positive character than they came in with and they definitely did," Gardner said. "They come in as a family. We win together. We lose together."