Stratford’s boys soccer team was a powerhouse in the GISA for years, winning four state championships in the previous seven years.
But this weekend, the Eagles are on the brink of something extra special. In their first year in the GHSA, the Eagles will play Atlanta International at noon on Saturday for the Class A championship game at Mercer’s Five Star Stadium.
Stratford head coach Ian Hayley got some good news Wednesday morning. The championship game was originally scheduled for 2 p.m. on Thursday, but because of scheduling conflicts, the game was moved to Saturday.
“That was something we were very happy to hear,” said Hayley, whose team is 14-4 entering the title game. “Thursday would have made four games in eight days, and that is a pretty tough schedule to keep no matter what kind of physical shape the team is in. I think the game moving to Saturday is great for both teams, and it will certainly be a better show for everyone involved.”
One of Hayley’s biggest worries will be playing on a shorter field than Stratford plays on at home and also playing on turf for only the second time this year.
“We have played several games in the shorter fields, and while our field is 76 yards wide, they may be able to stretch Mercer’s field to maybe 55 or 60 yards,” Hayley said. “It does change the way we approach the game. But playing on turf is really my biggest concern. We played Fellowship Christian on turf and lost 3-1 about a month ago and did not adapt to the field too well. This surface makes everything a bit faster. If you play a long ball, it hits the ground and then skips, and even when you are dribbling the ball, the ball tends to move faster.
“But we won’t make excuses, and I expect a great soccer game against a perennial Final Four team.”
Atlanta International enters the game 18-3-1 and defeated Pacelli 4-1 in the semifinals. Also, Atlanta International plays its home games on a turf field.
Stratford will counter with a defense led by Sean Grossnickle, Brighten Donner and goalie Jacob Lischer that has allowed only 16 goals. The offense is led by two seniors -- Wofford signee Jonathan Dean, who has scored 27 goals, and Georgia State signee Lukas Joyner, who leads the team in assists with 16. Sophomore Zane Holliman has 21 goals, including three in the semifinal win over Fellowship Christian.
“It’s a great opportunity to play at Mercer and in front of a home crowd,” said Grossnickle, who is the salutatorian of his senior class and a five-sport letterman. “The entire team is looking forward to playing our best game of the year on Saturday.”