Lee Horton is used to winning soccer games.
In 36 years as a high school coach, Horton has guided his teams to 995 wins, with 855 victories (444 girls, 411 boys) coming at Charlotte Latin, including 17 state championships (10 girls, 7 boys) in his 31-year tenure at the school.
Horton, 60, has coached the Charlotte Lady Eagles’ professional soccer team for the past 16 years and is a member of the North Carolina Soccer Hall of Fame and the United Soccer League Hall of Fame.
But after all of those accomplishments, Horton still has a special place in his heart for each of his Charlotte Latin soccer teams.
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This year, the Charlotte Latin girls’ squad (19-4-2) finished the season with one of its most memorable runs in school history, winning its second straight NCISAA 3A state championship and seventh title in the past nine years.
Horton and Charlotte Latin saved their best for the last 24 hours of the season, first knocking off archrival, Providence Day (No. 3 in the state) 2-1 in double overtime May 20 in a game that ended at 7 p.m.
The next day (1 p.m. kickoff), the Hawks knocked off previously unbeaten, Cary Academy (No. 1 in the state, No. 7 in the nation at the time, according to maxpreps.com) to claim the state title.
“In a lot of ways, this is one of the most rewarding runs and championships that we’ve ever had,” said Horton, who has taken his Charlotte Latin girls to the state’s final four in 27 of his 31 seasons at the school. “I get just as anxious and nervous as I did my first year with each team. But it’s not about me, because I’ve done it (won championships) so many times.
“For each team, you want that championship experience for them. There were some girls on this team that had never won a state championship. That tradition and expectation every year is what continues to drive us.”
Charlotte Latin senior, center midfielder Kassie Nielsen knows all about the program’s tradition.
“Winning a (state) championship is always the expectation at Latin,” said Nielsen, a co-captain with Christina Glaser, Harper McCabe and Emily Wise. “But this year was a huge challenge because we had a younger team. We had to deal with injuries. We didn’t feel like the favorite at first. …
“But in the end, we proved to ourselves and everyone else that we were champions, again. It was a great feeling, especially for the seniors, to finish on top.”
Charlotte Latin didn’t begin the season with the same championship swagger as the Hawks were trying to replace eight senior starters from a team that went unbeaten (17-0-2) in its’ championship run.
The Hawks had their share of ups and downs in the first two months of the season, going 9-2-4 after tying Wilmington Hoggard in their annual spring break trip to Wrightsville Beach.
But after returning from the beach, Horton and company took their game to another level, as the Hawks reeled off 10 straight wins to end the season, including two victories over Providence Day, one over Cary Academy and another over St. Mary’s (No. 5 in the state).
The Hawks outscored their opponents 40-3 in that span, recording eight straight shutouts going into the playoffs.
“I remember when we finally gave up a goal against St. Mary’s in the first round of the playoffs (after eight straight shutouts), the girls were like ‘Did we just get scored on?” Horton said. “We were a little shaken for a few minutes. But I think in the long run it helped us realize that every game from there on was going to be a battle.”
While Latin’s championship run was a “total team effort all season,” according to coach Horton, the Hawks got some special performances from their best players when it mattered most.
Sophomore goalkeeper, Claudia Dickey, had a state championship game for the ages, recording 18 saves.
Dickey (University of North Carolina commit) was huge all season, as she had 15 shutouts, allowing only seven goals in 24 games.
Fellow, Charlotte Latin sophomore forward, Mary Elliott McCabe (University of North Carolina commit) also had a state championship game to remember as she scored both of the Hawks’ goals in the 2-1 win over Cary Academy.
McCabe gave Latin the lead with her first goal 15 minutes into the game and then put her team up for good, netting another score just two minutes into the second half on an assist from Nielsen.
McCabe was also a major factor all season with 28 goals and 13 assists.
“Our whole team played great in the state championship game, but Claudia and M.E. (short for Mary Elliott) really had specials performances,” Horton said. “Claudia is so good in goal, and she came up with so many big stops that she gave us the opportunity to win those final two games against teams that were just as good or better than us. …
“M.E. scored two huge goals to give us the lead both times against Cary (Academy). We need to be in the lead against a team that hadn’t lost all year.”
Dickey and McCabe were quick to give credit to their teammates.
Dickey pointed out the entire Latin defense was dominant all season, allowing only 10 goals in 25 games. The effort was led by the back four (defenders) in freshmen Caroline Juckett and Olivia Lowe, sophomore Julia Gass and senior Harper McCabe (Mary Elliott’s older sister).
The Latin offense was also impressive, scoring 90 goals on the season, averaging nearly four scores per game.
While McCabe led the way, she had a lot of help from everyone from freshman, Anna Calloway to sophomores, Sutton Jones, Ellie Norman to junior, Emily Wise and seniors, Julia Cantalupo, Glaser and Nielsen.
Nielsen says the team unity was also a key to their success.
“All year we knew we had to play for each other and have more heart than the other teams if we were going to win,” Nielsen said. “So, we each put a piece of training tape on our wrist every game with ‘Play for each other,’ written on it in black sharpie. That kind of unity is what really made it feel special all season.”
While Charlotte Latin girls are still celebrating their latest championship, Dickey admits they are thinking about a three-peat.
“We have a lot of soccer to play between now and then,” Dickey said. “But we are already trying to think of a new theme. This year it was, ‘Pursue the 2.’ Now, we need something that rhymes with three.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.