But with its 5-1 victory over Walker on March 26, the Lady Eagles clinched their first area title and locked up their first postseason berth since 2002.
With a solid defense and opportunistic offense, Mount Paran (8-1, 5-0 Area 7A) used all of the weapons at its disposal to claim the area championship. Namely, it’s been depth, a mix of youth and experience and the contribution of impactful newcomers.
“We have 23 players on the roster and it’s a good mix of youth and experience,” said coach Justin Nelson, who is in his eighth season as the Lady Eagles’ coach. “We’ll graduate only three starters because we play a lot of juniors. We also have some freshmen who have made an impact.
“They’re a great group of girls who play well together and support each other on and off the field. We have great depth, too. We have good, young freshmen who have helped and the team has gotten better as the season has moved forward.”
The season began with a decisive 5-1 loss at Class AAAAAA Hillgrove, but since then, Mount Paran has won eight in a row and outscored its opposition 36-3. The Lady Eagles have recorded five shutouts and their two goalkeepers, sophomore Courtney McKenzie and freshman Katie Sweeney — have combined for 57 saves and eight goals allowed.
“We tested ourselves against Hillgrove, but the team has come together on defense since then,” Nelson said. “They’re jelling and playing well together defensively.”
Mount Paran’s starting lineup includes three seniors, five juniors, one freshman and two sophomores. The Lady Eagles have received contributions from senior Rachel VanHorn (10 goals, four assists), freshman Charlotte Dayton (10 goals, five assists), juniors Alex Reed (four goals, two assists) and Ali Fern (four goals) and sophomore Renee VanHorn (six goals, six assists).
“We didn’t have Renee last season because she was recovering from a torn ACL in her right knee,” Nelson said. “Having her back has helped, and Charlotte has been a big addition for us. Plus, having another year in the system for these girls has worked out.
“This process has been building over the past couple of years. We’re excited for our success. We knew we were capable of being good, and now we’ve beaten some area teams like Walker that we haven’t traditionally done well against in the past. Beating Walker was big for our program.”
Following the season-opening loss to Hillgrove, Mount Paran won three straight area games by a combined score of 16-2. However, it wasn’t until the Lady Eagles competed against bigger programs in the Brine Tournament of Champions that things really began to take shape.
“We learned a lot about ourselves at Jekyll Island,” Nelson said. “We beat two solid programs down there in Richmond Academy and Statesboro, and that gave us even more confidence.”
Mount Paran’s success has come with a price, however. As the school installed an artificial surface inside the stadium, the Lady Eagles had to split practice time and field space with the school’s other athletic programs.
Mount Paran’s first eight games were either on the road or at neutral sites. The Lady Eagles went 7-1 in those games and didn’t log their first home win until the 5-1 triumph over Walker on March 26.
Mount Paran has four games remaining on their schedule — three of which are at home — starting with tonight’s matchup against Darlington.
“We’ve traveled a lot,” Nelson said, “but the girls have been working hard at putting all of the distractions aside and just focusing on soccer.”