CHAPEL HILL — Coming into the week, there was only one high school team still playing in Chatham County. And that would be the Woods Charter girls soccer team, which faced off against Hobbton in the 1A state semifinals at home Tuesday night (game occurred after press time).
This was the second straight year the Wolves competed as one of the final four teams remaining in the 1A bracket. Last spring, they also played Hobbton in the state semis and came out on top by a 5-0 margin before losing to Christ the King, 3-0, in the tournament finals. Christ the King was part of the other 1A semifinal Tuesday and played Union Academy at home, meaning a rematch of last year’s championship game was still a possibility entering the week.
Woods Charter head coach Graeme Stewart said he thought about the opportunity to play the Crusaders again, but mostly as a reminder to his players: They need to stay hungry.
"The word redemption has been used a lot, and that's something I don't use, because that suggests we have some sort of right to something, which we do not,” Stewart said. “I do think about (Christ the King), but the way I think about them is as the level we need to get to. When I said after the game last year, 'Next year starts now,' that's what I meant. We knew what they were going to look like this year. They aren't going to come to us. We have to go find them. If we get to play them, we know exactly what they're going to be like.”
Woods Charter entered Tuesday’s semifinal game with an overall record of 19-1-3. Over the course of the regular season, the Wolves drew three times against Northwood, Carrboro and Cornerstone Charter. Their 1-0 defeat on the road at Franklin Academy on April 11 was their only loss of the season.
Stewart’s team entered the state playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the 1A east and won their first three playoff games heading into Tuesday night’s semi by a combined score of 24-1. He said he feels better about this year’s team than he did about last year’s at this same point.
“We've used last year as a sort of trigger point to come into this year, and we knew the things that we needed to work on,” Stewart said. “We've really challenged ourselves. As a team, I think we're better than we were last year. We have great balance. We have good scoring across the team. We just found a good path of play. There's nothing about this game that should be new to them. They know how to play in those games. That's the other part of learning last year. Sometimes you have to be there to see it and feel it."
Entering Tuesday’s game, Woods Charter’s leading scorers this season were freshman Amelia Cherry (41 goals, five assists) and junior Sienna Gray (37 goals, 23 assists). The team’s leading scorer in 2022 — Leyla Noronha (50 goals last season) — has contributed 27 goals and a team-high 24 assists.
Acting as a facilitator in the midfield, Noronha has been crucial in finding her teammates on attacking runs and laying off passes in the box while also showing off her scoring boots once in a while.
“What Amelia and Sienna have done is change the way we played from last year,” Stewart said. “That's one of the reasons why I think we've improved. Sienna is insatiable up top and Amelia is a brush of quality on the outside. We have good balance. It has taken some of the pressure for goal-scoring off Leyla. She still wants to score, there are runs that she can find, and invariably she finds them."
While Woods Charter’s ultimate goal this season is to win a state championship, this likely won’t be the last season the Wolves are among the top teams in the 1A classification. This year’s team features five seniors, but six of the Wolves’ top eight goal-scorers will be back for the team again in 2024.
Since starting at Woods Charter in 2014, Stewart has led the Wolves to an overall record of 134-49-8. The 19 wins this season coming into Tuesday night matched the most for the Wolves in a single season in program history, which they set last year.