COVINGTON - The Alcovy boys soccer team turned things around this spring after winning just one game in their first season.
The Tigers, behind head coach Michael Ebel, improve from an overall record of 1-12-1 in 2007 to 7-7 this year.
"I think I had a really good group of kids that wanted to be coached and wanted to improve. Their work ethic showed that," Ebel said. "We won one game last year, and we could have easily quit this year. But they were hungry and they had drive."
The accomplishment that Ebel is most proud of is winning the Newton County championship. The Tigers swept their county rivals, beating Newton 4-3 and Eastside 1-0.
"Winning the county championship was one of our goals. It meant a lot to us," he said. "This will be one of the last groups that have ties to Newton and Eastside, so it was really important to go out and beat them. For our seniors, especially Tim Walsh, it meant the world to beat those guys."
The other goal Alcovy set for itself was to make it to the Region 8-AAAA playoffs. By reaching that particular goal, the Tigers also achieved two others - winning a subregion game and beating a Rockdale school. They beat Rockdale 1-0 before qualifying for the region playoffs with their win over Eastside.
Even though Alcovy was shut out by Habersham Central 8-0 in the 8-AAAA playoffs, the score did not indicate how well the Tigers played.
"The Habersham (Central) coaches said that for a second-year school, they really expected to roll over us, but we never quit," Ebel said. "We were a little in awe when we went up there. But the guys played hard and it was a great reward for them. It showed that we're not some John Deere-driving, hick school somewhere outside of Covington. It showed that we could play soccer."
In their first season, the Tigers were in nine games that were decided by two goals or less. This year, they were in eight, winning five of them.
Ebel said being able to win the close games showed the growth the team demonstrated in such a short amount of time. He attributes the team's maturity to senior leadership.
"Jeremy Woodruff and Tim Walsh are going to be extremely hard to replace," he said. "Walsh has an outstanding work ethic and Jeremy has as passion for the game. The depth we had from Colton Papke and Jason Ballew, who are also going to be hard to replace, weren't flashy or spectacular, but they had a knack to do the right things and be at the right place. Mike Gregory came in and played goal for us, and Ryan Ledford gave us a toughness and an energy that will be missed next year. You can't ask more from your senior class then what they gave us."
Woodruff led the team in scoring with five goals, followed by Ledford (four) and Mark Howard (three).
A key to Alcovy winning close games was the play of junior Nick Waggoner. Ebel decided to give up scoring a lot goals on offense in exchange for strong defense.
"If you look back at our schedule, that's basically what we did," he said. "We weren't a high-scoring offense. The most goals we scored was six against Social Circle. But we scored when we needed to and made sure they didn't. I think Nick's the best player in the county and may be the best player Alcovy may ever have. He knows the game, he has a soccer culture about him and he does what is needed to make (teammates) better. We go as far as he takes us. Our goaltending wasn't spectacular this year, but Nick made it better."
Ebel is leaving Alcovy after two seasons to coach at Grayson next season.
Manny Fils can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.