April showers have ceased just in time to cool the air around the coastal Georgia area and dry up the pitch for postseason soccer.
It seems early to start talking about state playoffs, but the GHSA’s first round starts on April 25 for the girls and 26 for the boys. For those regions who don’t have region playoffs, their select teams will simply play through the end of the next week to determine seedings.
However for the regions who do have tournaments, those start to ramp up this week. One of those regions just happens to be 3-3A, which means both Southeast Bulloch squads will be lacing up the next two weeks to figure out who and where they’ll be playing come the end of the month.
Both Yellow Jacket team's path to the playoffs have played out very differently over the course of this season. For the girls — propelled by high-flying scorers Emily Barnard and Cole Robertson — they’ve drudged through a very lackluster region schedule against a bunch of Savannah area schools whom can be very-soccer challenged.
The likes of Savannah, Beach, Johnson, Jenkins and Groves are a combined 13-38-1 across all competition with a combined goal differential of -230. Very similar to what SEB baseball and softball deal with, playing a schedule like that can make the regular season repetitive and complacent.
Girls head coach Kristin Barnhill has not been shy about sharing her feelings on what her girls have to deal with during the region slate.
“It’s hard for my kids to change gears from being able to have their way with one team and then suddenly those bad passes they got away with are being intercepted by another team,” Barnhill said. “It’s a real rollercoaster ride from game-to-game.”
For now all Barnhill’s ladies can do is deal with the cards on their table. To try and counterbalance the lack of region competition Barnhill scheduled a tough non-region slate which included a number of top teams from around Southeast Georgia like Effingham County, Savannah Country Day and Wayne County.
While SEB’s games against Calvary Day and Effingham County didn’t fare well, they have proven they can handle other quality teams. A 2-1 win over Wayne County in their season opener and a 3-0 shutout of Long County would seem to prove they can handle themselves outside the usual 10-0 thrashing of a Chatham County school, but for this week their focus turns to the few quality teams in their region.
The Lady Jackets 6-2 region mark was good enough to land them the No. 3 seed in their tournament, behind 7-5-1 Islands and 8-5-0 Savannah Arts. They’ll get another shot at Islands this afternoon at 1:00 p.m. for a chance to not only play for a region title but host their first playoff game since 2011.
“We’re a much better team now than we were then,” Barnhill said. “We’re in a different formation now, and it suits as better as a possession oriented team.”
SEB fell 3-1 in the second game of the season to Islands the first time the schools met, but according to Barnhill she thinks her team had coagulated into a much better unit and the stats back it up. Despite their No. 3 seed, SEB has the best goal differential in the region at +47 by scoring more goals (69) and allowing fewer (22) than both Islands and Savannah Arts.
The aforementioned Robertson and Barnard have been the chief architects of the high-octane offense, while Sarah Clark and Gracie Thompson have been nice compliments up front. On defense Megan Judy has helped study a solid backline, while perhaps the biggest surprise of all for Barnhill has been the play of sophomore goalkeeper Makayla James.
“Her confidence is the biggest difference from season’s start to now,” Barnhill said. “Against Savannah Country Day she had a couple of big saves that probably hit the back of the net earlier in the season because of her confidence shift.”
James has been a crucial part of six clean sheets, as well as one of the main factors in SEB allowing one goal or less in nine of their 15 games. If James, Judy and the defense can keep the Islands offense at bay — Barnhill is confident her goalscorers can do enough to potentially upset the Sharks to secure the home playoff game.
“If we can come out and play like we did against Effingham and Country Day to play hard for 80 minutes, I believe we can win this time around,” Barnhill said.
SEB Boys out to prove a point
Contrary to their female counterparts, the SEB boys have not had the fortune of such a smooth season. For starters the squad wasn’t fully healthy to begin to season, and those injuries were to key players like Andrew Kalaani, Mason Canicotti, Evan Heidler and Michael Chambers.
The injuries put a big dent in how the season started off for the Yellow Jackets, falling in their first two region games to top schools Islands and Savannah Arts by a combined 9-0. But as the squad got healthier the teams’ play improved — even if they didn’t have the wins to show for it.
“We have finally started to play up to our potential,” said head coach Jonathan Graham. “It’s given me a sense of satisfaction that was can be as good as I thought we were.”
SEB’s 5-9-2 record has a number of inconsistencies within it. All five of SEB’s wins came against the same slog teams the girls deal with: Jenkins, Groves, Beach, Savannah and Islands. Much like on the girls side of things, the five boys teams are a combined 16-42-2 with a combined goal differential of -211.
The Yellow Jackets handled those five teams by a combined 41-6 score, but it’s against all other competition where SEB’s had a hard time putting things together. Both draws came against Calvary Day (3-8-2, 2-1 region 3-A) and Wayne County (7-7-2, 1-4 region 2-5A) — the latter proving SEB can at least play with an average team from a higher classification.
The real concern comes with the top of region 3-3A, where SEB’s been outscored a combined 14-0 by the likes of Windsor Forest, Islands and Savannah Arts. For this week the bigger concern is Windsor Forest, the No. 1 seed who beat the No. 4 Yellow Jackets 5-0 in their first meeting on March 13.
“They’re a great ball control team, everything is calculated with them,” Graham said. “We can match them physically, but they talk and have the first, second and third pass calculated ahead of time. I can respect that as a coach.”
Graham is aware of his team’s struggles and believes this season has been a learning experience for him too. It’s taken Graham time to figure out this team and the tactics, but his real test as a first year head coach begins as he tries to figure out a way to topple one of the best teams in 3-3A.
Windsor Forest (13-1-1, 7-0) is the No. 4 ranked team in 3A according to MaxPreps ranking algorithms and by far and away been the best team in the region this season. Graham knows the chips are stacked against his team tonight, but had this insight to offer on his squad’s chances in the 1-4 game.
“For starters we’ll have better weather this time around,” Graham said. “I’ve pumped up practices a bit this week, and we’ll take the same mentality we took down to Glynn Academy when we fought with them to the death until the last two minutes and they won 1-0.”
The boys will kick things off at 7:00 p.m. after the girls, and all games will be played at Morris Field in Savannah tonight. Depending on the result, the SEB boys will face the winner/loser of No. 2 Savannah Arts/No.3 Islands and the girls will see the same of No. 1 Savannah Arts/No. 4 Windsor Forest next Wednesday.