Through growth and leadership among its youth, Woods Charter’s Stewart has high hopes for 2022 season

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The Woods Charter women’s soccer team is pratically perfect through eight games this season, sitting with zero losses at 6-0-2 and its only blemish coming in two draws to start the season against Franklin Academy (3-2-1) and Jordan-Matthews (5-2-2).

The Wolves — who lost five seniors from its Elite Eight team last season — have found their groove, leaning on a youthful mixture of sharp goal-scorers, aggressive mid-fielders and near-perfect goal keepers to fuel their hot start.

This week, the News + Record spoke with Graeme Stewart, Woods Charter’s longtime head coach, ahead of Monday’s game against River Mill — which the Wolves won, 5-0 — to discuss his star players, his familiar coaching staff and his team’s ceiling.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Through seven games, your team is 5-0-2, which isn’t too shabby. How do you feel like this team stacks up against last year’s squad that made it to the third round of the playoffs?

GRAEME STEWART: I think we’ve matured as a group. Obviously we lost some important seniors, but what we’ve been able to do with the rest of the team being a year older — plus, we’ve added one person through the lottery that came to the school and she’s a fantastic player — so that sort of aging of the younger group that we had has really kept the balance. And I think we’ve actually moved forward from last year, so, in my opinion, we’re stronger than we were last year.

You mentioned that you lost some seniors from last season, such as Anna Mitchell and Eloise Maclean. How have you been able to replace the production void they left when they graduated?

We’ve moved some players around into those positions that were missing and that’s worked out pretty well, so far. Within the group, some went off to play club, but the way they’ve started, they’re leveling each other up. When we’re working in practices, everybody’s pushing each other, so the group right now is gelling really well and they’re pushing each other to get better and better, which is music to my ears. The record to me is not necessarily the important thing, it’s the fact that we’ve played good teams. Jordan-Matthews has got a winning record, they’re playing well, they just beat Seaforth. Franklin Academy is Franklin Academy and they’re a powerhouse every single year. So I’m really pleased with the way the girls have matured this early in the season and that we’re competing against very good teams.

When you talk about maturity, one person I’ve got to bring up is sophomore Leyla Noronha. She was a goal-scoring machine last year, scoring 18 in 13 games, but this year, she’s already gotten 13 goals through 7 games. What has she done to grow even stronger as a player and a goal scorer?

We talked about some things that we wanted her to do and to develop, and I’m always talking to all of my players, but with Leyla, it was specific. She doesn’t realize how good she can be yet. We are working to help her realize that. She plays on a high-level club team, so that’s always good. She’s been keeping practices with that group, which is clearly helping her. She came in this season fit, strong with another club season behind her, plus the things that we’ve been talking to her about. And as she’s just growing, she’s getting more and more confident in her own ability. She’s willing to try some things she may not have tried last year.

You’ve been doing this a long time, so you’ve had the opportunity to coach some extremely talented players, including a couple that are on your coaching staff. Do you think Leyla has what it takes to be one of Woods Charter’s all-time greats?

Yes, for sure. I’ve not seen a game-changer in our group like Leyla since Isabel Pearce. Now, she’s got a long, long, long, long way to get to that level, but I’ve not seen somebody who can just change a game and go at people and take people out like she does. She’s got everything going for her. If we can continue to develop her and develop that confidence, she’ll be the complete package.

What’s working for us right now, too, is the spine of the team. In losing Samana Young from last season, we’ve moved back Maddie Sparrow, who played the midfield last year, and she’s just taken to it like a duck to water. Plus, we had a 10th grader who didn’t play as a freshman, but she’s come in and she plays club and she’s added another bit of steel to the backline.

But another key player that we’ve brought in, who transferred from Northwood, is Lucy Miller. She’s a junior. And she’s an outstanding player. She has maturity and an IQ beyond her age, she really does. She’s fierce to win the ball back. The way I described it to them is that she goes hunting when we don’t have the ball. She’s got great touch. She knows when to give, she knows when to push, she knows when to hold. She’s provided a glue next to Chloe Richard in the middle. The two of them have worked superbly together so far and, up until now, they’ve won all the midfield battles that we’ve had. And I’m old-fashioned: if you win the midfield, you’ve got a good chance of winning the game.

It seems like this team also has a leadership quality about it that you love to see as a coach, right?

Yes. And that’s why we’ve got four captains, because I saw it in all of them. We’re actually a pretty young team, we have very few seniors, so we’re pretty much sophomore- and junior-driven in terms of numbers. Although we’re obviously going to lose a lot of experience, like we always do, this offseason, but we’re still going to have a core coming back next year. We’ve got good leadership. As an example, a game we played against Research Triangle last week, it was one of those where we didn’t play very well. Even though we were sort of possessing the ball, we weren’t happy with the way we were playing and Research Triangle scored to go up 1-0. Fair play, they scored, even though we had most of the possession. So I looked at them and I said, “All right, well, what are you going to do about it?” and it took them a little while because sometimes you just have to play through it. There’s no coaching needed, they’ve just got to figure it out. And that’s exactly what they did. And in the second half, once we talked about it formally at halftime, their mental approach was completely different. And they really played to their potential. And I was very happy about that.

As I mentioned earlier, you’ve got a couple of your former players on your coaching staff this season. What have they brought to the team and how do they make your job easier?

I’m the luckiest coach there is. Obviously, there’s Elliot and Isabel Pearce. Caleb Smith is a former goalkeeper of ours who went to play semi-professionally in Germany. So he works on our goalkeepers for us. But Elliot and Isabel know what we’re trying to do. They’ve been there. What they can also do, because they’re much younger than me, is they can still play and show the type of movements, show the type of touch, show what we’re expecting them to do on the field, whereas at my age, I can only talk about it. My brain says, “I know where I’m supposed to be, I just can’t get there anymore.” Aside from the fact that we bounce ideas off of each other, the two of them, even though they’re young, are very mature coaches in terms of their outlook and the way we’re trying to do it and changes that we need to make and the flow of the game, they can both see that. But sometimes what we’ll do is, for example, just thinking about Leyla, I’ll say, “Isabel, go and talk to Leyla about this certain topic.” And they’ll have that one-on-one conversation. So from Leyla’s point of view, she’s got somebody like Isabel, who’s played at the D-I level, and she’s telling her what to do. So they both command respect because of what they’ve done and the kids really listen to them.

What’s this team’s ceiling at this point? Do you actually think this team could go as far as last year’s team or even further?

Yes, I think that should be a realistic goal for us. That’s not trying to be big-headed or anything. I haven’t seen or looked at any of the other good teams like Hobbton or Voyager Academy, so there’s a lot of good teams around and on any one day, anyone can beat each other, but if we play to our potential, I think we can be very successful to (a) get to the tournament and (b) go further than we did last year.



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