Steve Hancock isn’t quite sure how much credence he wants to give state rankings. But it’s an opinion the Sun Valley girls soccer coach is being forced to shape since his team started the season ranked among the top 15 teams among Class 4A competition in the state, according to eurosportscoreboard.com, for the first time that anyone associated with the program can remember. The Spartans climbed as high as ninth at one point this season and currently sit at No. 12 with a 13-2 record.
It appeared to be a worthy representation of a team that finished the 2012 season on a strong note, a team that swept the second half of Southern Carolina 3A/4A conference play with wins over perennial powers Weddington and Marvin Ridge, a team that lost a nail-biter to eventual state champ Hough in the second round of the playoffs.
Hancock understands the ranking won’t give his team any extra goals in a game or help once the playoff seedings are doled out. But Hancock, however, can’t deny the fact that his team’s standing has had an effect on the way his players have gone about their impressive season thus far.
“I don’t know how much (our ranking) really means, but being preseason ranked in the state, they already knew going into (the season) they were already going to have a little bit of a target on their back and they had to play a little bit better,” Hancock said. “I think they raised a lot of eyebrows last year to finish off the year the way we did. We knew people would be aiming for us this year, so I think (my players) go out every night and literally give it their all.”
Fifteen games into the season, the Spartans seem worthy of their new statewide respect. In its first four games, Sun Valley earned wins over perennial powers Cuthbertson and Charlotte Catholic, each of which won its respective state title in 2011 and played for another last season. This season, though, the two teams were outscored by the Spartans by a combined score of 8-2.
Judging by results alone, this year’s Sun Valley start wasn’t all that different from last year’s, when the Spartans raced out to an 8-1 mark. But the record was inflated with five wins over teams that would finish the season with just eight victories among them. The Spartans then went on to lose to Weddington, Marvin Ridge and Charlotte Catholic, with a win over hapless Anson and a tie against Porter Ridge interspersed among their next five games.
Suddenly, it appeared Sun Valley would take its normal spot in the lower tier of the Southern Carolina 3A/4A conference standings.
But then, as Hancock said, the team “started putting it all together.” The Spartans bought in to Hancock’s defense-first mentality and rattled off eight consecutive wins, which included an undefeated run through their league in the second half of conference play with wins over Marvin Ridge, Porter Ridge and Weddington – the first time the program had done so in Hancock’s then-six years as coach.
“That momentum just carried over into the playoffs,” said Sun Valley midfielder Jacquie Zimmerman.
Yes, the Spartans’ postseason run last year was short-lived, but falling to Hough, the eventual state champion, was a moral victory they were willing to take, especially considering they held their own against the Huskies in the 3-1 loss. The teams were tied at halftime before Hough got the eventual game-winner midway through the second half.
“It’s going to sound weird, but I think the Hough loss just got us even more prepared for this season, starting off with some big teams like Cuthbertson and Charlotte Catholic and Providence,” Hancock said. “I think, more than anything, it really got the framework set for this year.”
Senior goalkeeper Amanda Bill agreed and said the team’s entire mind-set has changed.
“It’s funny because last year we kind of came on later in the year, and this year we started from the get-go,” Bill said. “We were going out with our goal of being a state champ.
“Last year it was, ‘Oh, if we get to the third round, great.’ But now it’s, ‘We want that championship. We want to beat South (Mecklenburg). We want to win conference. We want to beat Hough, we want to beat Lake Norman.
“Teams like Marvin Ridge, my freshman year, if we competed with them, it was great. Now it’s, ‘We’re going to beat them.’ That’s our mind-set. We have that killer mentality.”
So far, the Spartans has succeeded with relentless pressure, starting up top with forwards who’ve grown adept at not allowing a defense room to clear the ball out of their zone. Sophomore Kile Powell is a mainstay at forward but is joined at times by Paula Holmes and Mallory Hopkins, who primarily play in the back with Keirsten Peck, Taylor Webb and Kirsten Wall. The versatility, Hancock said, has given the team the ability to switch up lineups and styles to match up with each opponent individually.
The midfield, meanwhile, has consistently featured Zimmerman, Taylor Ross and 2012 All-Region 9 selections Sabrina Frankel and Brittney Smith.
Thanks to their lineup, the Spartans have scored at least a goal in every game while holding opponents scoreless in eight contests. In three other games, the Spartans allowed just one goal.
“It’s really easy for me to look good when I have such a strong back line back there,” Bill said with a laugh.
But the success this season hasn’t been without its failures. During the Spartans’ first four games, which included victories over Cuthbertson and Charlotte Catholic, they also dropped a 3-2 game to Providence. But Hancock said the loss was well-timed.
“I think it was a good moment for us in the grand scheme of things because I think it got us going even moreso in the right direction,” said the coach, who also characterized the team’s 3-1 loss to Weddington at the start of conference play much the same way – both a confidence-booster and a reminder that the Spartans can still lose to a good team if they don’t bring their best each night. Hancock said it’s a good lesson for a team with budding title aspirations.
“That got us back to reality,” said Smith, who scored a pair of goals to top Marvin Ridge, 2-1.
Now, as the Spartans make the season’s last turn, they hope to repeat the success they saw in the second half of conference play last season. The final stretch starts in earnest for the Spartans with their rematch with Weddington on Friday, April 19. In their final seven games, the Spartans will face the Warriors (9-4-1), Marvin Ridge (10-2), Porter Ridge (10-5), Ardrey Kell (7-5), Cuthbertson (9-2-4) and Greensboro Grimsley (9-1-1).
A successful run through such a stretch would probably result in a pretty solid end-of-season ranking. But Hancock isn’t entirely concerned with the final number attached to his team; he’s more focused on what it would represent.
“In high school soccer, you’re going to have teams that come and go, and you’re going to have good players that come and go,” said Hancock. “I think, in general, the last few years up until real recently, we just haven’t had a ton of talent come through. I think we’ve done really well with the talent we have had.
“I think Sun Valley kind of fell off the map a little bit in years past, my first couple of years here. I think we’re definitely rising right now, and I think most people realize that.”