The top girls soccer team in Chatham County last season was Woods Charter, which went 19-1-2 overall and advanced to the 1A state final before falling, 3-0, to Christ the King. The Wolves have boasted a .500 record of better in eight of the past nine seasons under head coach Graeme Stewart, who is 115-48-5 since the start of 2014.
Last year’s squad was an offensive and defensive powerhouse, averaging 5.5 goals scored per game while allowing just 13 to their opponents all season. The Wolves cruised through conference play, going 8-0 against league opponents, before shutting out each of their first four playoff opponents en route to the state final.
Over the offseason, Woods Charter lost two seniors to graduation — defender Analise Villanueva and keeper Jana Matthews. That said, the Wolves bring back every midfielder and forward on the roster from last year, including seniors Lucy Muller and Chloe Richard, as well as junior Leyla Noronha. The trio combined for 95 goals and 38 assists last season.
Earlier this week, Stewart spoke with the News + Record about his expectations for his team this spring, their experience playing in the state final and much more.
How do you feel about where your team is heading into the season?
GRAEME STEWART: I think this year is going to be a great opportunity for us. Obviously, one of the things we’re going to have to do — as much as last year was a lot of fun and we were fortunate to be successful, we do have to forget about yet, because we haven’t done anything yet this (upcoming) season. We have to learn from last year, and we have to prepare for people wanting to beat us, if they didn’t already didn’t before. The target is even bigger now. We’ve got to prepare ourselves mentally and physically for what we want to achieve. And what we did before doesn’t count for anything at the start of this season.
I’m really excited about the quality of the team we’ve got. We’ve obviously lost two big players from last year in Analise Villanueva and Jana Matthews, but where there’s loss, there’s opportunity. That’s what we’ll do. We’ll rebuild that piece (of our team), but two is a pretty low number for us to lose from year to year. We’re fortunate that we have a really strong squad coming back. They’re all a year older. You’ve got some good players coming up from the middle school as well. We’re really looking forward to kind of blending the team and seeing where we can go.
You mention wanting to put last year behind you, but how much will playing at the stage your team did last year — the 1A state final — benefit the girls going forward?
I think it’s going to help us. What I mean by ‘putting it behind us,’ is just with the assumption that we’ve done something so far. We haven’t. What (last year) does give us — we knew what Christ the King were going to look like, but now we really know. It’s different to say, ‘Oh, it would be nice to go to a state final.’ But when you have, you’ve already handled that pressure and that moment. It’s the biggest game the girls can play in. That’s got to be an experience we develop from. Now we know what it looks like and what it takes, and we’re aware of all the noise around the event. The cliche is, you play the game, not the occasion, and I think you have to be there to develop that knowledge. We have a group coming back with that experience, and they’re hungry. We were disappointed with the way things finished last year, but I will say, the depth and talent on Christ the King is highly unusual. They’re extremely strong, but so are we, so it’s our job to catch them. That’s our challenge. They’re not going to come to us. We’re going to have to go to them.
Two important players for you this season will be senior midfielders Chloe Richard and Lucy Miller. What has it been like to watch them grow over the past couple of years, and how have they developed as leaders in that time?
I think the thing for both of them is, they just love playing the game, playing with this team and just working as hard as they can for this group. They’re both extremely coachable, they want to learn, they listen. They’re a big part of the chemistry and the drive of this team. During the season, one of the real positives we were doing is that when we were losing the ball, we were pretty quick at hunting it down and getting it back. They were two of our main proponents of doing that. They just didn’t want to lose. They wanted to drive (the team). And they’re great kids. They’re great students. They work hard. And I’m just very fortunate to have both on the team.
You have a strong junior class as well, led by Leyla Noronha. What was is like to watch her do her thing last year? Just how special can she be?
I think she already is at this level. For every player, there’s always room for improvement, and like Chloe and Lucy, she is absolutely coachable. She wants to improve, she’s hungry to improve and we’re going to push her. We’re going to push the whole group. She also hates losing. She was very emotional after the state final, and that’s a positive. She doesn’t want a repeat, so let’s go change that.
You start your season Feb. 28 against Raleigh Charter. How do you think this matchup sets the tone for the rest of the season?
They’re our old rivals. It should be a bit of a humdinger. We’ve had many a good game with Raleigh on both the girls and boys side. They’re always good. They always have a lot of talent. It’s a really tough opening game for us. We have to be ready.
We also had a really tough start last year at Franklin Academy. Raleigh is in that same category. We have a tough schedule overall, and that’s by design. We’ve got strong opponents at the beginning of the season, because we need to push the girls, and we need to develop them. If we want to get where we potentially can get to, you have to earn it, and you have to play the top teams to get there.
Sports Editor Jeremy Vernon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jbo_vernon.