Soccer seniors battled on field, excelled in classroom

Tiftarea’s Lady Panthers soccer team takes a moment after tying Lanier County, 1-1, in a 2020 match. The squad had five matches under its belt when the season ended.

CHULA — Graduation has happened or is just around the corner for a number of high school seniors in Georgia.

It is supposed to be a time for celebration, a chance to look forward to a new chapter in their lives in college and a step forward into adulthood. Unfortunately, the last two months has featured much limbo. Classrooms are empty, graduations are virtual or postponed. Even a walk in the park has required much planning by state and local organizations.

Among the many things affected by the spread of the coronavirus has been the loss of activities and athletics. For many high school players around the state, this was their last opportunity to achieve on the fields.

The Georgia Independent School Association suspended play March 14. Initially hopeful of resuming competition, the league held off on a decision until just a few days ago, closing out the spring seasons for Tiftarea soccer, track, golf, tennis and baseball teams.

First-year head coach Carrie Phillips had six seniors on her Lady Panthers soccer team: Emilee Bourgeois, Jordan Harbort, Morgan McKay, Frances Raines, Carlie Strenth and Audrey Young.

In emails, Phillips said she felt awful that the season ended so abruptly.

“It’s like my heart got ripped out of my chest, not just for me, but for these girls. The excitement for the season that had just started came to a screeching half.” She knows it’s case across the state and nation for everyone. “The important thing is everyone’s safety… I just pray for God’s grace over our school and the families of our players. My thoughts and prayers have been with them every single day.”

Bourgeois, a defender on the squad, had already had her season affected by injury. “Unfortunately, Emilee tore her quad in practice right before the season started and re-injured it during one of our games,” said Phillips. Advised to take it easy until region competition, Bourgeois was ready to go, until strep struck. “Although we weren’t able to fully utilize her during the season, Emilee played a big role in the preseason during conditioning and by helping lead the varsity and JV teams.”

A third grader at Tiftarea noticed the senior banner for Young and asked Phillips if Young was her daughter.

“She’s not my daughter, but I would definitely take her as my own,” said Phillips, who described her work ethic as outstanding. “She always gave 110% and she did it with a smile on her face.” Young was named 2020 Exchange Club Youth of the Year and also participated on Tiftarea’s literary team.

“Defense queen” is how Phillips described Harbort. “She has been such a leader and commander holding down the back line,” Phillips said. “She has that grit about her that she wasn’t going to let the ball or anyone get past her and, if they did, she never gave up and did her best to recover.” Harbort is a student of the game, said Phillips, always asking questions.

Harbort is one of the veterans of the program, having played seven years and started on varsity for three. She was a finalist for Exchange Club Youth of the Year and Wendy’s High School Heisman for Tiftarea.

Strenth had to start her season a bit later because she came directly from basketball and the Lady Panthers advanced to the second round of the state Class AAA tournament. That meant Phillips only had her for two games.

“She is a natural leader and force to reckon with in both basketball and soccer,” said Phillips. Strenth needed no transition period between the two. “She is strong, aggressive and has great footwork. She’s one you have a hard time placing because she can play everywhere and you want her everywhere!” Even during basketball, Strenth was a valuable assistant to Phillips.

Like Harbort, Strenth has been in the program for a long time, having begun playing in sixth grade. She was a starter since ninth grade.

McKay and Raines were rare five-year starters, having achieved that honor the first year they were eligible to play on varsity. McKay earned All-Region honors as a freshman and sophomore. Raines made honorable mention All-Region as a sophomore and first team as a junior.

“Our speed demon and striker,” said Phillips, calling McKay the fastest girl she’s ever seen. In their scrimmage against Irwin County, McKay scored five goals. Unfortunately, a concussion ended her season. “Morgan was definitely a leader on the team,” she said.

McKay is not finished with soccer. Phillips said she plans to walk on at ABAC this fall.

Raines was described as “our rock” by Phillips. A center-midfielder, Raines “absolutely controlled the field,” she said. “A very strategic player. She gave me the feedback I needed and we would work hard during practice to figure out what worked and what didn’t.”

Soccer players are used to coming back from injury. Raines was no exception, having broke her ankle in ninth grade. Phillips said she rolled an ankle while conditioning, took a big hit against Irwin and had a “terrible looking” knee injury against Westfield, but kept playing.

“Frances was one of our top scorers. She took the vast majority of our penalty kicks, free kicks, goal kicks and corner kicks. We really depended a lot on her.” Raines was also an Exchange Club Youth of the Year finalist.

All the seniors are academically gifted. Bourgeois plans to major in biology at ABAC, then transfer to the University of Georgia. That is similar to Young, who will directly go to UGA to major in biological sciences. Raines has been accepted to Georgia’s honors program. Harbort will attend Auburn to major in animal sciences on an academic scholarship. Strenth and McKay are going to ABAC.

Phillips described her own first year in charge of the team as “unusually challenging.” She’s also a new mom as daughter Betsy Grace is now nine months old.

“Coaching takes tremendous dedication and is a huge time commitment, which I found was the most challenging as a new mom,” she said. Fortunately, she has plenty of help on the fields from fellow coaches Cindy Harbort, Amy Strenth and Chance Benson.

“Coach Harbort was my assistant and she was like my right arm,” said Phillips. “I would have been lost without her.”

This is part of a series honoring senior athletes at Tiftarea Academy. Golf has already been featured.

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