Season of Change

Cuthbertson looks to defend state soccer title with new players, coach

by Aaron Garcia

New coach Nathan Wade (back) and seniors (from left) Alex Duty, Tiffany Walker and Marisa Pagan will lead the Cuthbertson girls soccer team this season. (Aaron Garcia/UCW photo)

It seems that everyone else knows exactly what to expect from the Cuthbertson girls soccer team this season. As the No. 1 Class 2A team to open the season on’s state rankings, the Cavs appear to be primed to defend last year’s state championship, which they won as a second-year program after finishing with a 26-1 record. Throw in the fact that seven of the starters return to the roster, and things appear to be status quo, which, for the Cavs, has turned into a pretty lofty standard.

But really, things couldn’t be more different for the Cavs entering this spring.

By virtue of being a third-year program within a school that began with only freshmen and sophomores, the Cavs are faced with replacing a senior class for the first time. And what a group it was, headlined by last year’s Union County Weekly Girls Soccer Player of the Year, Leah Drawdy (59 goals, 10 assists in 2011), as well as Ashlee Hall, a fellow captain and defensive stalwart. In all, five seniors graduated. It’s an obstacle common to high school programs but one the Cavs had been fortunate enough to avoid to this point.

But to compound matters, the Cavs enter the campaign without coach Nelson Garner, who has taken a hiatus this season in anticipation of a new child, due later this spring. In his place is Nathan Wade, last year’s JV coach.

Wade is an experienced coach and heads the club soccer program at the Weddington Athletic Association. His time within the Cuthbertson program also has helped his assimilation, he said.

Still, not too many coaches get the opportunity to inherit a defending state champion for their first high school head coaching position.

“It’s definitely interesting,” Wade said. “I can’t say I was worried about it, but it was an interesting dynamic I had to work through.”

After being hired in January, Wade was in Phoenix for a U.S. Soccer licensing course. While he was there, Wade spoke with University of Washington head women’s coach Leslie Gallimore about his new Cuthbertson position, the upcoming season, and the challenges it would bring. Wade said Gallimore gave him some strong advice: “Don’t ignore what happened (last season), but at the same time, it is a new season and everyone gets a new chance and new opportunities,” he recalled her telling him.

In other words, he noted, if it ‘aint broke, don’t fix it. But tweaking it some is just fine.

“I don’t know if it’s ever the best idea to come in and drastically change things, especially when they’ve worked so well,” Wade said. “I think that’s a really good thing that I’m not coming in and the girls are just going to have to completely change their style and mentality. We’ll maintain a continuity as we transition.

“With a school as young as we are, we’re trying to build a history in our program, and I think the best thing we can do is tell the girls, ‘OK, we’ve created something great, we’re going to continue to build on that. We’re not going to scrap it and start over.’”

But there are some changes. Last season, Drawdy was often the most dynamic player on the field. Her speed alone made it easy to progress the ball down the pitch as she could out-sprint most defenders if the Cavs played the ball over the top. But this season, the attack will need to be more deliberate, said Wade, at least early on. He said the offense will strive to possess the ball longer to find the open striker and create goals.

It’s not as though the new style has been implemented to compensate for a lack of athleticism following Drawdy’s departure. Players such as senior midfielder/forward Alex Duty and senior center midfielder Tiffany Walker are just two players who should challenge for an all-state bid this year, but it will be difficult to replace Drawdy’s top-end speed.

To their credit, the Cuthbertson players are embracing the change, although many of them still refer to Garner as a “father figure.” Rather than dwell on losing their coach as they prepare to defend their state title, the players said the clean slate Wade has brought to the position has helped build a sense of urgency in the early-season practices. So far, the players, led by seniors Duty, Walker and Marisa Pagan, seem to mirror Wade’s approach of “with challenges come opportunities.”

“We’ve just taken the approach that it’s a brand-new season and we have to start all over,” said Duty. “We’re not starting at the top; we’re starting at the bottom, and we have to work our way up like we did last year.”

Added Walker: “It does give a lot of other people an opportunity to step up and show what they have and how they can lead the team and what they can do on the field.”

So far, Wade said he is pleased with the progress and admitted the team is farther along that he anticipated, which is a good sign, considering the Cavs’ early schedule. Cuthbertson was slated to open its season against powerful rival Marvin Ridge (ranked No. 8 in Class 3A) on March 1 before facing teams such as Central Academy of Technology & Arts (No. 1 in 1A), Weddington (No. 6 in 3A), Union Academy (No. 8 in 1A) and a powerful Charlotte Country Day team (No. 3 in 3A private-school rankings). All before April.

No. 1 rankings don’t lend themselves to sneaking up on your opponents, and Wade is just fine with that.

“You know everyone is gunning for you. For me, that’s exciting,” said Wade. “I enjoy that added level of competition as we go into every game knowing you can’t take any night off. Every team you play is going to be gunning for you and giving their best.”

It’s a new role. But as is the case with everything else this season, it will just take some getting used to, said Duty.

“I feel like once the season starts up and we kind of get into the groove and work our way through it, we’ll be OK,” she said.

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