‘Unbreakable bond’ carries Wando to title game

Wando’s Tucker Heffron (left) and 11 Warrior seniors will play for a second straight state title Saturday against J.L. Man. (Wade Spees/Staff)

It wasn’t meant to put a dent in the proud boys’ soccer tradition at Wando High School, but a decision made three years ago at the behest of the U.S. Men’s National Team might have had that effect.

In 2012, U.S. Soccer decided to extend its Development Academy season from seven months out of the year to 10, forcing players to choose between their club teams and their high school teams.

That same year, a group of Wando sophomores decided to stick with their school team rather than play with the elite S.C. United Battery Development Academy squad. Those sophomores are now seniors and Saturday will play for their second straight state championship and the school’s third in four years.

The 25-1 Warriors will take on Class AAAA Upper State champion J.L. Mann (21-2) at 6 p.m. Saturday at River Bluff High School in Lexington. Academic Magnet will play Indian Land for the Class AA title at 1:30 p.m.

For Tucker Heffron, one of Wando’s 12 seniors, the decision to stick with Warriors coach Shilo Tisdale has been a rewarding one. Wando has lost just three games over the past three seasons and has at times been ranked No. 1 in the nation.

“This is the best program I’ve ever played for,” said Heffron, who has signed with College of Charleston and will play in the Clash of the Carolinas all-star game. “There’s a connection between the players, really an unbreakable bond. And we get to look after the younger guys and play with the older guys I’ve grown up with, so it was a great decision to stick with Wando soccer.”

Wando senior Nick Wright, an all-state pick, actually spent one of his high school seasons with the Development Academy before returning to play for Wando.

“I just didn’t like it as much as I did playing with guys I’ve known since I was little,” Wright said. “It was cool, but I just wasn’t as happy as I was playing soccer for Wando.”

Tisdale said it’s a special group of seniors. Six of them have signed to play in college — keeper Jon Milligan and 2014 All-Lowcountry player of the year Josh Masten at UNC Greensboro; Heffron and John Merrihew at College of Charleston; Ramon Medina at Spartanburg Methodist; and Nat Edwards at Millsaps.

“Success in any sport is about commitment to your team,” said Tisdale. “And when those guys made that choice, it was something special. It was nothing I pushed; they wanted to do it.

“The quality of these 12 seniors is special. We could have 11 senior starters out there at any time, and that means a lot.”

Twenty different players have scored for Wando, with five in double figures led by Wright with 14 goals and junior Sam Ross with 13. Masten has scored six goals in the postseason, and Heffron four.

The Warriors will face J.L. Mann of Greenville in the title game for the third time in four years. Wando lost to Mann by 2-1 in 2012 and won by 2-0 last season.

This season, Mann has lost only to Academic Magnet (3-2) and Mauldin (2-1). Mann’s senior forward Michele Bottari and Mason Gilpin will play in the Clash of the Carolinas, and sophomore forward Nassim Al-Nawasreh and junior midfielder Brenden Jones joined Botarri on the Class AAAA all-state team.

Academic Magnet will go for its second straight Class AA title and third in four years when the Raptors take on Indian Land at 1:30 p.m. at River Bluff High School.

The 16-4 Raptors have cruised through the playoffs by an aggregate score of 29-2, including a 6-1 victory over Bishop England in the Lower State finals. Four players made the AA all-state squad: senior midfielder Colton Frankel, junior defender Daniel Lowell, junior midfielder Cooper Nugent and junior midfielder Dylan Robinson. Frankel and Reece Moore will play in the Clash of the Carolinas.

Indian Land, located in Fort Mill, is making its fourth straight appearance in the AA title game, but has lost the previous three, twice to Academic Magnet and once to Bishop England. Coach Adam Cole’s team is 16-7-1 this season, including competitive losses to AAAA schools Socastee and Irmo.

Indian Land has won four playoff games by an aggregate of 16-3, including a 4-1 win over Saluda in the Upper State final. Junior midfielder Garrett Gerdes and senior defender Shea Rodgers made all-state.