After going a perfect 20-0 last year and winning a third-straight N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 3A girls' soccer championship, one might assume Charlotte Latin is favored to win the title again this year.
Not so fast, says coach Lee Horton.
Seven seniors, all starters, graduated from last year's team, including two all-state selections: Kristin Horton and McCallie Jones. Kristin, Horton's daughter, is now playing at Liberty University and Jones is at College of Charleston.
"It's the best class we've ever graduated," said Horton, who is in his 26th year coaching at Charlotte Latin. "I'm sure a lot of people are licking their chops after that class graduated."
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This year's team has only two seniors, defenders Sophie Hilliard and Katherine Peters, who started on the varsity team as freshmen. The two say they hope they can lead Latin to another state title and keep their championship record perfect.
Winning a fourth title "would be incredible," said Peters. "It may be the best way to end our senior year because we're leaving and want to end on a high note."
Horton said the seniors, both 17, will be a crucial part of the team this year.
"They're going to be the heart of the defense for us," he said. "Those two girls are going to be key because we're going to have to be strong defensively."
Peters and Hilliard are excited to step up as leaders for the Hawks.
"We have to fill in big shoes," said Peters. "We graduated the best girls' soccer class ever, and we've kind of been lost in the mix of things because it's just the two of us in the class."
"It's going to be a struggle, but I think we can get there if we put our minds to it," she said.
The Hawks still have plenty of talent. Sophomore Ashley Finke scored 20 goals and had eight assists last year. Junior Amma Okwara had nine goals and a team-high 16 assists last year, while junior Mia Kane had nine goals and five assists.
"We have a lot of great players not in (last year's) senior class," said Hilliard. "We lost seven really good seniors, but I'm not worried at all this season. We have really talented freshmen coming in and we have a great junior class and sophomore class. I'm just excited for the season."
Early injuries last season may actually have helped the team, said Horton. When two top players went down last year, Finke, Okwara and Kane were forced into the lineup.
"That experience of them having to carry that load for us while those girls were injured is really going to help us this year," he said.
Latin's toughest competition might be rival Charlotte Country Day, which Latin beat 1-0 in last year's championship game. Horton also said he expects Raleigh Ravenscroft, who made it to the semifinals last year, to be strong.
"We're excited about the challenge," he said. "We know people are going to be after us and our goal is to defend that state championship."