Already a veteran of two state championship appearances in just five seasons, Houston County’s Jason Kirk might have turned in his best coaching performance in 2016.
Kirk replaced a deep senior class, changed formations in the middle of the season and led the Bears to the GHSA Class AAAAA semifinals, earning The Telegraph’s All-Middle Georgia Boys Soccer Coach of the Year honors.
“He’s just a positive influence, and he wants what’s best for us as a team,” Houston County forward Cristian Medina said. “When you know that about your coach, it just resonates throughout the entire team, and it helps you play better.”
Houston County lost eight seniors in the 2015 class, including two-time All-Middle Georgia Boys Soccer Player of the Year Steven Moore, and expectations were not high.
After a 3-2 loss to Norcross in March, Kirk went back to the drawing board. He went away from Houston County’s traditional 4-3-3 formation, taught his players a new system during several hectic days of practice and led the Bears to an 11-2 finish to close the year.
“With this team, their soccer IQ was higher than I ever had,” Kirk said. “We learned from (Norcross defeat), and we adapted. We completely changed our philosophy from how we had been playing. We knew that we weren’t going to go anywhere in the state playoffs if we didn’t change it up, so we basically learned an entire new strategy in three days, and each game just got better and better for us.”
The momentum reached a peak in the second round of the playoffs with Houston County facing elimination, trailing 2-0 at Dunwoody. The Bears roared back for a 3-2 win on the back of Michael Fussell’s hat trick and then repeated the feat in the quarterfinals with a come-from-behind victory over Clarke Central.
Houston County was mere minutes away from extra time in the following round and another state title appearance before Riverwood broke through with 3:28 to play to end the Bears season.
“It hurt pretty badly, but that team was by fair the best team we played all year long, including our losses,” said Kirk, who has an 89-10-2 record with the Bears. “They were the most complete team, and they had the most talent on the field. We held them to one goal. I’m proud of my guys. A lot of them had their best game all season in that game.”