When the Columbus High Lady Blue Devils soccer team heads to Acworth today to take on Allatoona in the Georgia High School Association Class AAA state title match at 1 p.m., they will be looking to accomplish a lot of firsts.
One thing No. 2 Columbus (18-4) already has done is become the first public school girls soccer team from Columbus to play for a state title. Three times previously, in 2006, 2008, and 2010, the Columbus girls got to the state semifinals, but Wednesday's 2-1 victory over No. 3 Oconee County pushed the Lady Devils through to the state championship match.
"Getting to the state championship match means the world to me," said Columbus coach Russell Oliver. "This is my 15th year as head coach, and I've had more than 100 players come through here and play for me. This is a credit to every player who ever bought into our system and believed that we could be competitive at a state level.
"Before now, people thought Columbus was a fluke, and the perception of us was that we were a city school with a big budget and all kinds of things. We probably have the smallest budget of any sport in the county. This validates all the work me and the kids have put in. Win or lose, this moves us one step closer to earning the statewide respect we've deserved for a while."
Jay Entlich, the Columbus State women's soccer coach, said seeing the Lady Blue Devils earn the opportunity to play for a state title means a lot to him.
"I think it's absolutely phenomenal for the city," Entlich said. "I've been here for nine years and had a chance to work with a lot of Columbus High's players, and I've seen them grow from when they were 6 or 7 years old. To see how far they've progressed is extraordinary. (Oliver) does a wonderful job, does a great job every year with his team, and it goes unnoticed a lot of the time."
Oliver has had a young roster to work with this season, with just two seniors and a total of 18 freshmen and sophomores. That meant there was a lot of on-the-job training early in the season, but Oliver said his team learned from its mistakes and has reaped the benefits in the postseason.
"We have a lot of young players,
and you can only prepare them so much in practice," Oliver said. "Until the match actually starts and you see just how good the other team is, you can't know exactly what you need to do to be successful. We learned that early on in the season, and the kids now know if I say a certain player is dangerous or that we need to do something, they know how to play and make adjustments. I have full confidence we're going to put forth our best effort."
Along with the school's first state title in girls soccer, a victory over Allatoona would make Columbus High the southernmost public school in the state to win a girls soccer title. For the most part, state soccer championships are won by teams in and around the Atlanta area, and the Lady Blue Devils are looking to be the exception, rather than the rule.
Entlich said by progressing through a bracket that included three top-10 opponents in four matches, Columbus has shown the talent to compete with some of the elite teams in the state.
"I think it's a tribute to not only (Oliver) at Columbus High but the Red Star soccer program and coach Tony Frankovich as well," Entlich said. "He's done a great job growing players in fall, and it's incredible how much they progress from fall to the next spring. There are kids from teams playing for the Class A and AAAA titles coming here to play at Columbus State, and it's incredible to see we have the players that can compete at a high level."
Columbus also would become the first public school to win a Class AAA girls soccer title since Starr's Mill did it in 2000.
When it comes to the Columbus-Allatoona matchup, Entlich has a unique perspective, having seen the Columbus High players mature while dealing with some of Allatoona's top players. Having seen some of the best players the Lady Buccaneers have to offer, Entlich said Columbus will have its hands full, but he expects the Lady Blue Devils to be up for the challenge.
"I work for the United States Soccer Federation as a Team Coach, and, through that, I run a monthly training center," Entlich said. "Three players from Allatoona have been to my training centers, so it's neat to see players from Columbus play against national-level players.
"I'm hoping nerves don't settle in and the girls show they can win."
"One thing I do know they're going to have an incredible experience at 1 p.m. (today)."