Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Surprising Southlake girls soccer reaches state semifinals

Only an eighth grader, Southlake forward Emily Lipinski scored 22 goals during the regular season. She was the team's second-leading scorer. The Eagles were undefeated until losing in the MAC tournament finals April 29. Sergio Tovar -

The Southlake Christian girls' soccer team has put up some impressive numbers this year.

The Eagles, who are ranked 10th in the state amongst private schools, outscored opponents 57-6 (as of May 6) in large because of two 20-plus goal scorers - forwards Emily Lipinski, who had 22 goals, and Bethany Spano, who tallied 24.

Southlake (19-1) plays Calvary Baptist (16-1-1) Friday in the N.C. 2A private school state semifinals in Wilson, NC, at the Gillette Athletic Complex.

"To have two girls have that many goals between them is just impressive," said Southlake Christian coach Mark Apgar.

But as important as these two were to the team, first-year soccer player and Emily's big sister, junior Sarah Lipinski was impressive, proving to be a dominant goalkeeper - only allowed five goals during the entire regular season. Apgar found Sarah almost by mistake. He noticed that she had good hands during a basketball game and decided to see if he could get her on the team. The sport seemed to come naturally to her, but she admits she was nervous.

"Being the one guarding the net and being the last defender and the fact that it sometimes depended on me whether or not we won the game was stressful," she said.

Apgar, whose team is made up of only 15 girls, admits he has to scramble year in and year out to find players like Sarah and have enough people on the roster. He explained that being from a small school can hurt the team's depth.

"My starting 11 is as good as anybody in the state, but when I have to replace people and go to the bench there's a big drop off," he said.

That's why he was so surprised about his team's hot start.

Coming into the season, Apgar didn't know exactly what to expect out of his young team, which has six middle-school aged girls on the roster and only two seniors. The Eagles were 15-6-3 last season, but they lost four players, including their starting goalie, to graduation.

Apgar admitted that before the season started he had realistic goals - to finish second or third in the MAC behind a good Covenant Day team.

"They've set the bar every year - they're the team to beat," he said. "I thought if we could maybe steal a game from them that would be great and we ended up going undefeated in the conference."

But the Eagles' star player, Spano, wasn't surprised by how well her team performed.

"Everybody knew we could do this if we stepped up," she said.

Her sidekick up front, Emily Lipinski, agreed.

"We all pushed and worked hard," the eighth grader said.

The Eagles have had recent success, going 111-15-6 since Apgar took over the program in 2004. The last two years, Southlake has made it to the NCISAA 2A state semifinals. Both times, they've lost to the same team - Cary Christian - by the same score - 2-1.

"I always think, 'Can we get back to that game and finally get past it?'" said Apgar.

This year, the team has a legitimate chance to answer "yes" to that question.

The team went 17-0, dominating their conference schedule, before losing to Concord's First Assembly in the Metrolina Athletic Conference tournament final April 29. The Eagles also have four all-conference players - Spano and Emily Lipinski as well as Bailey Preib and Emily Timberlake.

Apgar said their loss will only make his young squad better in the long-run.

"Losing a close game to a bitter rival puts a seed in you and I'm hoping that will spark some energy through the rest of the season," he said.

Apgar recalls his team's first win against Covenant Day, their first victory against the Lions, as the game in which he realized that his team could make some noise this season.

"To get a win against them made me think, 'OK, we've kind of turned the corner,'" said Apgar.

As proud as Apgar is of his team's performance, he still wants his team to play tougher opponents out of conference to get them to further improve. He had a game schedule against Charlotte Latin, arguably the best private school team in the state, but it was canceled because of rain.

"We might have picked up some losses, but we would've gotten to know better who we were and we would've been able to have more challenges and to be better prepared for the playoffs," Apgar said.

A big question going into the state tournament is whether Spano, who was the conference player of the year, will be healthy after suffering a concussion during their lone loss of the season. But Apgar still likes their chances.

"We definitely have a shot going into states," he said. "If we can get healthy, we have a great chance to make it all the way to the finals."

Regardless of how far the Eagles go, they should compete next year for a second MAC title and could make another run for a state title.

Although they'll have to replace three seniors, including the team's captain and starting center midfielder, Timberlake, who Apgar referred to as a coach on the field for his Eagles. Apgar said the team should do well with some exciting young players coming up.

"I see us continuing to grow," said Apgar. "Next year could really be exciting for us."

-- Sergio Tover


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