The Academic Magnet boys soccer players have academic smarts. That's a given. But one of the main reasons the team is back in the Class A state soccer championship despite heavy graduation losses is that its returning players and their new teammates have soccer smarts, too.
"I think this team is very soccer knowledgeable," said co-head coach Jason Hamil. "They take advantage of certain nuances of the game, certain situations better than past teams. The other teams we had were not as soccer knowledgeable. This year's group knows how to react in certain situations, how to execute in certain situations. And that's been a key."
The Raptors will face the ultimate test at 11:30 a.m. Saturday when they battle Christ Church in the Class A title match. The showdown will take place at Memorial Stadium in Columbia.
Hamil says he and co-head coach Troy Bennage never know what to expect when it comes to landing new players at the school, because there is no traditional feeder schools to supply talent.
"At Academic Magnet, you just don't know what you have as far as newcomers are concerned until you get on the field for that first practice. You really don't know anything about enrollment and who has ability to play soccer until that first day of school. And that can change by the time you hold your first practice in February," Hamil said.
But Hamil said he knew that he had some talented newcomers shortly after practice started.
"They responded well," he said. "I didn't expect to have the same record as we did last year. I knew we would take some lumps. But I also knew we had some kids who knew how to play soccer, and that was a key."
The Raptors face Christ Church for the third straight year and for the fourth time overall. Many observers believed that Academic Magnet's best chance for a state title was last May, when the Raptors beat the Cavaliers in the regular season.
But the Raptors' chances seemed to disintegrate just over a minute into the match when the Cavaliers scored a goal off a throw-in and went on to gain a 2-0 victory.
"It wasn't that they scored so early," Hamil said. "It was how they scored. That goal partly deflated us. They got the goal in a scramble, on a throw-in where there was miscommunication on our part. Still, we had 79 minutes to get it back. But we couldn't do it."
Hamil said Saturday's game will be more like a business trip.
"These games are always special because you get to represent the school, your family and community," Hamil said. "But this is our third (straight) year, and the kids know the atmosphere, the stadium, the pomp and circumstance. There's not that feeling of awe this year. We treat it like it's another regular season game."
The team has talent despite last year's graduation of eight seniors.
Sophomore David Michaelsen has performed well all year after moving to forward. He's scored a team-high 26 goals, including a game-winner against Hardeeville on Tuesday night.
Senior forward Jack Kulze has been asked to help distribute the ball more this spring, and he has responded with 20 assists and 17 goals.
The team's back line has been incredible all year, Hamil said. Mike Reynolds, Bastien Bacro-Duverger and Daniel Kendra have provided solid defense.