Harlem High School soccer coach George Berry was worried last Thursday.
On the eve of the Lady Bulldogs' season opening match, seven Harlem players were missing from practice because of field trips, band rehearsals or illness.
The Lady Dogs didn't miss a beat, though, as the team hit the pitch Friday and whipped Westside 11-0 in a Region 3-AAA contest at Harlem.
"Everyone was there Friday night," Berry said. "They took care of my fears. They showed me they know how to play."
The Lady Dogs showed everyone a thing or two in 2003, when Harlem won its first region soccer championship and advanced to the Class AAA state playoff quarterfinals.
The Harlem girls may be even better this season.
Last April, Harlem needed a last-minute rally to top Westside 2-1 in the Region 3-AAA finals, but easily overpowered the Lady Patriots last week.
Elissa Botts scored three goals, and Beyra Ortega and Mallory Morgan had two apiece. Harlem also received goals from Ashton Leogrande, Jamie Nevin, Jessica Wilshire and Whitney Martinez.
Goalkeeper Ashley Kelly recorded nine saves to notch a shutout in her Harlem debut, and she's one of several freshman poised to make an impact this season.
"We've gained more in freshman ability than we lost to graduation," Berry said. "This is the second year in a row that we've had freshmen coming in and contributing immediately."
The team's success in 2003 has carried over, according to Berry.
"Participation is up tremendously. More girls want to be part of the program. The freshmen are so thrilled to be playing with people that know how to play the game. They're out there with smiles on their faces."
Berry also coaches the Harlem boys, and has led the Bulldogs to the state playoffs the past two seasons.
The Dogs tied Westside 3-3 in the nightcap last Friday, and Berry took the blame. "We led 3-1 at halftime, and we should have been more defense-oriented," he said. "We ran out of gas and couldn't finish in the second half."
Berry's boys will have to refuel fast, and the Lady Dogs also won't have any time to rest - the teams take on Thomson today at Harlem, then play Greenbrier Thursday at the Brierpatch.
"We're going to learn what we're made of," Berry said of the first ever varsity soccer matchups between the Columbia County teams. "Greenbrier has great programs, both the boys and the girls. We'll have to play perfect games to beat Greenbrier."
The Bulldogs-Wolfpack battle will mark a reunion - Pack coach Chip Warren was introduced to soccer in the 1970s when Berry worked at Curtis Baptist Elementary School.
"I've always looked up to George, and he's done a good job with the Harlem program. I'm looking for a tough match," Warren said. "We try to schedule quality opponents in our non-region games, and Harlem's no exception. They're a playoff team just like we are."
Over the past few years, Warren had been bugging Berry about meeting on the pitch, but Berry wanted to wait until the match wouldn't be a mismatch.
"Before last year, Harlem wasn't competitive, and I didn't want the kids in a situation where they would be ridiculed," Berry said. "Now our programs are coming along, and we're getting some quality players on this end of the county."
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