CONYERS - Expectations this season for the Heritage girls soccer team are simple: qualify for the Class AAAA state tournament.
According to second-year head coach Chad Suddeth, making a deeper run in the state playoffs is also a goal.
Last year the Lady Patriots lost to No. 1 Marist in the first round.
"We are really focused on region play. Salem has to be the favorite in the region and we look forward to that matchup," Suddeth said. "Loganville has been an up and coming program over the last few years and should be strong again this year. Apalachee is new to our region, so that 'unknown' concerns us a little. Our fate will be determined by how well we play in those contests."
In preparation for its tough region opponents, Heritage has compiled a strong nonregion schedule, featuring a handful of elite teams such as Grayson, Lakeside-Evans, Kennesaw Mountain, Woodward Academy, Westminster and Athens Academy.
"These matches should help prepare us to compete with the top teams in our region," Suddeth said. "By the end of the year, we will be battle-tested and should be better prepared for a deeper run in the state playoffs."
Heritage graduated four seniors last year, including three starters. Eight starters return, including an additional six who saw significant playing time last season.
Despite having just two seniors, the Lady Patriots have seven juniors and nine sophomores.
"We have a great bunch of girls back," Suddeth said. "Although we are young again this year, we return a lot of experience."
Leading the way is senior midfielder Constance Bates, a four-year starter who tallied 14 goals and three assists last season. Bates has committed to play for Columbus State University.
Junior Melissa Drish was the region's top goalkeeper last year with 104 saves and nine shutouts.
Juniors Nadia Bryan (striker) and Brittany Gray (midfielder) combined for 15 goals and 12 assists last season.
Defensively - including Drish - Heritage returns juniors Janet Van Heest, Lindsey Sutton and sophomore Michelle Turner.
Arguably, Heritage's biggest strengths this season are experience coupled with team chemistry.
"We have a bunch of girls who get along real well together and have played a lot of soccer together," Suddeth said. "This should pay dividends for us when we experience some of that adversity that always seems to present itself throughout the season."
According to Suddeth, his squad focuses more in practice on set pieces - free kicks, corner kicks - than most teams for several reasons.
"We take great pride in these scoring opportunities," he said. "We try to do some creative things with our set plays. The girls seem to have fun with all of our different set pieces."
Perhaps the Lady Patriots' biggest hindrance is lack of leadership, yet there is plenty at the coaching helm. Only time will tell whether it will have an impact on their season.
"We're still waiting for 1-2 players to step up and take a leadership role and help guide this team," Suddeth said.
Jason Murdock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SideBar: At a glance
Team: Heritage girls soccer
Coach: Chad Suddeth (second year)
First game: Grayson, 5:30 p.m. Feb. 10
Key returning players: Constance Bates, Nadia Bryan, Melissa Drish and