The Lake Norman girls' soccer team could not make its state championship dreams come true, but the Wildcats don't have regrets when they look back at their 20-2-1 season.
"We fell short of our goal, and that was disappointing," said Lake Norman coach Jon Mertes. "But put that aside and it was for me - and I think for the team - one of the most enjoyable seasons to go through."
Behind a group of talented players, including Kendall Fischlein, Allye Mertes and Taylor Waters, the Wildcats tied for first place in the I-Meck, going 12-1-1 in conference play, and advanced to the state quarterfinals.
Lake Norman was a possession-oriented squad that could not only score often but also had the ability to move the ball efficiently. Mertes said what separated this year's team was how tight the girls were on and off the field.
His daughter, Allye, agreed.
"We're all really good friends," she said. "We work well together."
Fischlein, an all-state forward, led the team in scoring. By constantly moving and trying to make runs off the ball, the speedy sophomore became a constant threat for the Wildcats' opponents.
She had a lot of help from Waters, who moved to the midfield after being named I-Meck player of the year last season as a forward. Waters, a physical and technically gifted player, was more of a playmaker for the Wildcats this season, a role she's used to on her club team.
The junior added that having Fischlein and talented forwards Courtney Reilly and Kelsey Palmer up front helped the Wildcats offense blossom.
"The way we play, we play forward and look for them, so if they're not capable of holding up the ball, it ruins our system of play," said Waters, who was an all-state player last year.
Lake Norman, ranked fifth in the 4A state poll, finished the season outscoring its opponents 114 to 18 goals.
Allye Mertes was key in keeping opposing offenses from scoring, leading the Wildcat defense from her holding midfield position.
Allye, who was an all-state selection for a second year in a row, was not only a hard tackler but was also able to help the Wildcats by calmly distributing the ball from the back.
Mertes said his team was playing its best soccer heading into the playoffs after recovering from what he described as a slump midway through the season, when the Wildcats suffered their first loss to Hopewell.
Their season ended in a 2-1 overtime loss in the 4A quarterfinals against I-Meck rival Hough.
The Wildcats had to quickly recover from an emotional shock before the quarterfinal after they found out that Fischlein and junior defender Sam Condron were in a car accident on their way to the game. Condron, a starter for the Wildcats, was forced out of the lineup.
"They're some of our best friends and we didn't know if they had been hurt real bad," said Allye, who will play at UNC Wilmington in the fall. "When we were warming up, we weren't ready at all - our minds were on the accident. We were thinking of our friends."
Although Lake Norman didn't seem to be affected on the field, they couldn't overtake the Huskies.
"With everything that happened that day, we did everything we could do," said Fischlein, who scored her team's only goal.
Mertes admits it was hard to see his players in tears after the loss to the Huskies. Those tears came not because they had lost, but because it was the last time that group would play together.
"That says it all about this team," he said.
Despite losing five seniors to graduation, the Wildcats should return a strong team.
Mertes said the team should return a lot of speed and goal-scoring ability that should allow them to compete with Hough for a league title.
"We have some unfinished business that I know the girls want to take care of next year," said Mertes.