When Jason Kirk resigned as the boys soccer head coach at Houston County last summer, he did so with an 89-10-2 record and three trips to the Final Four.
In doing so, he helped build Houston County into something of a boys soccer name brand, a team with national rankings and expectations to make deep runs in the postseason.
His successor is about five years older, and brought to the job a pretty lean resume.
“This is my first coaching job,” Stephen Edwards said with a laugh. “My first coaching job.”
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He can laugh now.
“The players laugh about it, too,” he said. “You should have seen the looks on their faces when we met the first day.”
The laughing has taken on a different tone. The senior-oriented Bears are 12-2 and host Northside at Freedom Field at 6 p.m. on Friday for the GHSA Region 1-6A championship.
That the Bears are where they are regardless of who succeeded Kirk is a little bit of a surprise, according to one of the veterans who has played a large part in establishing the program.
“Going into the season, I expected a little less,” senior center-back Tim Freeman said, noting the departures of the head coach and several experienced players. “We lost half of our team last year practically. … I’ve been pleasantly surprised.”
Freeman also played a large part in Edwards getting the job. Edwards taught and coached Freeman and other current players in fifth grade, so their friendship goes back a long way. Edwards has run an after-school program called the Lifetime Sports Club, at which Freeman has volunteered.
Edwards’ first team as a coach was at Feagin Mill last fall, and that team went 13-0. He said as an elementary school teacher, there was no time to coach, but that changed when he moved to the middle school level.
Freeman wasn’t concerned about Edwards’ basic lack of head coaching experience.
“I have complete confidence in him,” Freeman said. “He played on the college level. I’m confident in his ability. I haven’t seen any significant dropoff when (Kirk) left.”
Edwards and Kirk have different personalities and coaching philosophies, although that hasn’t led to a difficult transition for the Bears, who finished 11-2 last year and lost in the Class 5A quarterfinals to Riverwood. That team lost All-Middle Georgia Boys Soccer Player of the Year Cristian Medina and a slew of other seniors.
A pair of Henrys, Heath and Hunter, leads the Bears in scoring, teaming for 27 of Houston County’s 51 goals. Heath and Hunter are also 1-2 in assists. Senior Declan Furlough has given up six of the seven goals scored on Houston County, which has four straight shutouts and eight this season.
Freeman has gotten help at center-back from junior Clayton Martin, who has developed into an impact player.
Austin Marfell is among the freshman contributors, and he is third with eight goals. Injuries forced the move of Matthew Manion from outside back to holding midfielder, and Edwards said Manion has blossomed at the new spot.
Edwards, a Byron native and Central Fellowship graduate, played in college at Toccoa Falls. At one point, he sat down with his head coach and expressed an interest in playing soccer after college.
“Well, this is as far as it’s going to go. I think you need to consider coaching on some level,” Edwards said of the conversation with coach Dan Warner.
Point taken, eventually.
Edwards said this team has superb overall leadership, especially with the seniors, who have been part of the program’s success. The Bears lost early to Tift County, a team Edwards said Houston County should have handled.
“We had to have the ‘come to Jesus’ practice the next day,” he said. “But I didn’t have to say a word. My seniors, the leadership takes over.”
He also said making the job a little easier is the team’s high soccer IQ as well as high academic standards.
“Some of them, like Tim, are like player-coaches,” Edwards said.
He listed future colleges for the Bears, all schools with strong academic reputations, and said few of the players are interested in more soccer. Freeman is deciding between Notre Dame and Virginia.
“It’s not that they don’t love soccer,” Edwards said. “But they see the bigger picture.”
The picture for now is matching the usual run deep into the postseason, and now in a higher classification, Class 6A. Freeman said the Bears don’t have the same target on their backs as in the past, and may be flying under the radar a bit.
“Since we lost a large group of seniors last year, we’re not in the (spotlight) as much as we have been,” Freeman said. “It’s a good thing for us. I think flying under the radar is going to be good for us in the playoffs. There’s not as much buzz this year, but we’re in a good place.”