FPD lost five key players from last year’s GHSA Class A state girls soccer runners-up team, including the Middle Georgia Player of the Year and the program’s career statistical leader for goalkeepers.
“The consensus by others was this would be a rebuilding year,” said Vikings head coach Josh Trieste, whose team fell 3-2 to Pace in the 2014 title match.
Better make that reloading instead of rebuilding.
FPD (15-3) has blended a handful of experienced returnees with a group of talented newcomers to again challenge for the state championship. The Vikings, who are riding an eight-match winning streak, start the quest at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at home against Eagle’s Landing Christian (9-3).
“I think we may have caught some teams by surprise,” said Trieste, who led the Vikings to state titles in 2011 and 2012, the program’s first two seasons in GHSA after a long run as a GISA power. “We lost a lot, but we returned some experienced players, too.”
Two of those were seniors Sara Robertson, a defender, and Jane Howell, a midfielder. They started as freshmen on the 2012 title team so they know both ends of the spectrum a championship match can bring.
“The pain of losing is far worse to feel than (how great) you feel winning,” Robertson said. “The majority of our players had the terrible feeling last year, so our drive not to lose is just as great as it is to win.”
Seniors Maisyn Samples, Megan Ingram join Robertson as returning starters on defense while Howell is one of two returnees in midfield. Fellow senior Brooke Battson, who leads the team with 24 goals, is a veteran at striker.
“Having those senior defenders has made a big difference over last year,” Trieste said. “We’re not built to score a lot of goals. We keep it close when we play like we can to score two and allow one or none.”
That doesn’t mean the Vikings can’t score in bunches. That’s where sophomore midfielder Kate Patterson and Howell are critical.
Patterson has played in just the past five games because of injury while Howell missed two weeks of matches with an injury when the Viking suffered two of their losses. They are FPD’s key targets on corner kicks (Patterson is 6-foot-1) and for gaining and maintaining possession.
“They’re extremely good ball winners in the air,” Trieste said. “They had 13 or 15 goals between them on corners last year. They can win a lot of balls for the attack or to just keep possession.”
Two of those joining the veterans to help return the Vikings to title contention are freshmen -- midfielder Elizabeth Nelson and goalkeeper Caylee Ann Sutton. Nelson has scored 23 goals while Sutton has played every minute in goal, allowing just .83 goals per game.
“She has good hands and is pretty fearless,” Trieste said of Sutton. “The experience we have at defender is going to give a freshman some confidence going in, but she’s played older than she is.”
FPD’s losses were to St. Vincent (2-1), Lovett (6-2) and Savannah Christian (1-0). St. Vincent and Lovett are in the Class AA playoffs with Savannah Christian in the other side of the A bracket.
The loss to St. Vincent in the title match of the Viking Cup halted a home match winning streak that dated to 2008. Although disappointing, Trieste thought it could have ended up as a benefit.
“I’d rather not lose the cup championship,” he said. “But I felt we had a lot of pressure on us because of (streak) in playoff games. We don’t have that any more.”
The Vikings have been spotless since losing at Savannah Christian, a team it outshot 22-1.
“Just couldn’t get one in the net,” Trieste said. “They get one, and it goes in.”
It’s no coincidence that the streak entering the playoffs also has come when the Vikings have had all their weapons.
“We finally have all the injuries over, and we’re working well on the field,” Howell said. “Our mentality now is that we have everybody, let’s finish strong.”
Eagle’s Landing is a familiar playoff foe. FPD won last year’s second-round match 3-0.
“They only had one senior, so it’s basically the same team we’re going to see,” Trieste said. “We lost five from last year, so it could get tight.”