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Heritage soccer teams open playoffs tonight

It's a big day for the soccer programs at Heritage High School.

Both the boys and girls teams will host South Forsyth in first-round state playoff games today at Evans Memorial Stadium.

The boys are region champions for the first time since 2003, finishing 10-0 during a Region 8-AAAA slate that included a three-game road winning streak in early March and culminating in a huge win over state-ranked Habersham Central.

The winning feeling didn't end there, and with a 3-0 win over Eagle's Landing in the regular season finale, the Patriots are currently on a 13-game unbeaten streak (11-0-2).

Now, Heritage and coach and former player Brandon Stewart prepare for the Region 7-AAAA No. 4 Eagles in a 7:30 p.m. game.

"We've tried to instill into our boys that, even in January, we are not training just for the season, we have the expectation of challenging and winning the region, and preparing for the state playoffs," Stewart said. "When they're wanting to quit, give up, not work hard in January, we constantly are calling out, 'We train for April, we train for May!'"

Stewart is hoping this May turns out better than in past years. The Patriots have lost in the first round in each of the last four seasons, and haven't scored a playoff goal since April 2007. That should change with the strong 2012 group, led by leading scorer Mauricio Reyes.

"Mauricio ... has had to work so hard to get those goals he's gotten. But even more so, he has totally changed his game for whatever it is we need," Stewart said. "He's played center (midfield) for us, he's been a leader in training and on the field, and his work rate in all those aspects has been wonderful."

The Heritage girls are back in a familiar setting, getting ready to play in the first round for the fifth consecutive season. After losing an opening round game in three straight years, the Patriots finally broke through with a thrilling win in penalty kicks over Chamblee in 2011.

Now, the No. 9-ranked team in the state and Region 8-AAAA runner-up will try to make sweet 16 appearances more of a regular occurrence. Heritage (14-3-1) was disappointed in its runner-up finish in league play, but is one of the strongest No. 2 seeds in the state.

"Yes, we felt we were talented enough this season to win a region championship and although it's disappointing that we did not take care of our own business, I thought we still had a stellar regular season," girls coach Chad Suddeth said. "Still very proud that we get to host in the first round. There are a lot of other soccer teams that would love to be in our position."

And a lot of teams would love to have Heritage's 1-2 combination of Arielle Gunderson and Courtney Hodges. Gunderson, a midfielder who is signed with the University of Florida, is the Patriots' best all-around player, and Hodges, a forward signed with Clayton State, is capable of scoring at any moment.

Meanwhile, Heritage boasts one of the stingiest defenses in the state (13 goals allowed in 18 games), and an excellent goalkeeper in Mady Carter (11 shutout wins).

"Very proud of our attack overall this season," Suddeth said.

That attack will be put to the test against South Forsyth (5:30 p.m.). The Eagles (11-5-2), led by striker Rachel Shah (34 goals), played a difficult schedule that included region games against state-ranked Lambert and Chattahoochee, and an early-season match up with Class AAAAA No. 1 Milton.

"We have a very tough opponent coming in the first round ... they come from a strong region and have played a lot of quality opponents," Suddeth said. "My main concern is us. I truly feel that we are the only ones that can beat us. If we play with a high work rate and stick to our style of play, then it will be very difficult for anyone to beat us."