As early as last Wednesday you could see the storm clouds brewing. By Tuesday you could probably smell it in the air.
When this past Wednesday showed up, the preparations were being made, and on Thursday the skies opened and it all came flooding in.
Of course, I could be talking about the mini monsoon that came through the area this past Thursday, threatening to flood out Sharp Stadium’s somewhat beleaguered natural grass field and cancel all the best laid plans of the Eastside soccer Eagles to take down fourth-ranked Woodward Academy in front of a strong contingent of Eastside fans. But I’m not.
In fact, it is that group of Eagle Nation I’m referring to that was the storm.
Listen, if you missed Thursday night’s Region 4-AAAA clash between Eastside and No. 4 Woodward Academy, you may have missed the best possible explanation anyone could give as to why soccer is becoming such a special sport around these parts.
And when I say “these parts,” I’m not just talking about downtown Atlanta where the MLS Champion Atlanta United play. I’m talking about right here in Covington and Newton County.
Of course, we’ve gone through the current Region 4-AAAA alignment long enough now to presuppose that whenever Eastside and Woodward Academy meet, in virtually any sport, there will be major region implications on the line.
You were there for the two schools’ last couple of football games. You’ve also seen them go at it on the baseball and softball fields. You know what I’m talking about.
Well, it’s no different on the pitch. And Thursday night — and the days leading up to it — proved as much.
The atmosphere was electric, like lightning. The fans were tuned in, tuned up and ready to roar, like thunder, with each Eastside goal or positive possession. This could be said for both the girls and boys games, really — but the action, especially in the boys’ night capper, lived up to all the expectations you’d normally expect out of two heavyweight programs fighting early season for postseason positioning.
The match was so good, as a matter of fact, that even if you were just a casual soccer fan or one who doesn’t follow the game much at all, what you saw would’ve taken your senses by storm, and likely have you coming back for more.
That was probably the whole idea behind the storm of support for this game that Eastside worked hard to conjure up.
It was two Wednesdays ago — Wednesday February 20 to be exact — when the first storm warnings showed up in the form of a tweet from the Eastside boys soccer team’s Twitter page.
“Eagle Fans- you asked and your administration answered- Feb 28 Soccer Match against Woodward Academy, all student tickets are only $1 with School ID,” it said. “Pack the Nest and be Loud and Proud.”
Six days later and a day before the game, a follow up to that message was tweeted out, this time complete with a “Beat Woodward” graphic. Both tweets had been shared in a fairly widespread manner, and it showed, as the small side of the Sharp Stadium bleachers were almost filled.
If you were there, you noticed a small, but loud section of young men setting a stellar home field atmosphere. It looked like a miniature version of Eastside’s vaunted student section that you’re most likely to see on football Fridays. This one, however, was mostly comprised of baseball players.
“Pretty much the whole baseball team came out to support us,” said Eastside junior Creighton Goerner. And apparently the Eastside soccer team has already marked April 12 on their calendars for a little reciprocation. That’s the day the Eastside baseball team hosts Woodward.
Goerner and the Eagles gave them plenty to cheer about. Goerner himself was responsible for both of Eastside’s goals.
But players like sophomore Jordan Beam who drew a tackle in the box call to set up the game winner, while giving Woodward’s defense fits all night trying to keep him off goal, or guys like Tristan Aldredge who played lights out defensively all night or junior keeper, Jackson Hamby — a player whom head coach Champ Young said “grew up” Thursday night — fed into the electricity of the moment and put on a show that should pique people’s interest in what this squad can become.
Why? Because the storm of support up for this game was no fluke.
This is a darn good Eastside soccer team. Goerner’s getting college recruiting attention. Beam began traveling the world to play the game before he was old enough to drive. You’ll find few players more exciting to watch on runs than speedster Jackson Jolley. And there are others, no doubt.
This team took Class AAAAA No. 1 Johnson down to the wire, even holding leads on two different occasions. This squad went to Fayetteville and tied an always dangerous Whitewater bunch.
And when your only loss on the season is to a defending state champion and perennial soccer power from a larger classification — that aforementioned Johnson squad — then you’ve got reason to stick your chest out a little bit. Or at least walk around with some confidence that your team can compete with, and beat, virtually anybody in Georgia.
Those who were in the number Thursday night saw what i’m talking about.
I know soccer purists may cringe at the comparison, but given how huge American football is in the south, you’ll understand what I mean when I say watching, covering and writing about Thursday night’s game felt like a Friday Night Lights situation for me. Not just because I didn’t get home until 1 a.m., but because of the intensity, the action and, yes, even the sounds.
When Goerner’s PK got past the Woodward keeper, Sharp Stadium erupted to the point where you forgot that only one side of the bleachers was being occupied, and you half way expected to hear The Pride of Eastside strike up the fight song.
When the team took off in a dead sprint to the baseball team student section to celebrate each goal, I got chill bumps on my arms.
Really, it felt like a miniature version of the ecstatic nature of a United game. That’s why it’s tough to make that comparison to American football because soccer has a feel and culture unique to itself. And to experience some of that on the high school level was special.
And, to be sure, the sport’s popularity is on the rise — not just in the professional ranks, either. An Atlanta Journal Constitution article written in December makes mention of how youth participation in Atlanta’s American Youth Soccer Organization has doubled over the course of four years. Statewide, Georgia boasts about 86,000 players ages 4 to 19 who play.
That same article cites a 2018 Gallup study that says 37 percent of adults call soccer their favorite sport to watch. That’s second only to — yep, you guessed it — American football, which has been the nation’s top sport since 1972.
Soccer can be an expensive sport, though, especially when you start playing on the club level.
But as its popularity runs congruent to the decline in youth coming out for football, you’ll have to think that more people will start finding ways to get their kids involved in the game as an alternative, although soccer is nothing close to a non-contact sport.
School teams, YMCA or other youth leagues, etc. could be a more cost effective place to start allowing a child to explore the game.
Young says that’s exactly what he tries to make his Eastside boys program.
“I’d say we’re on the cheaper side,” he said when asked how playing soccer at the high school level compares to other sports from a costs and fees perspective.
“I charge $400 total,” he continued. “That includes custom uniform, practice shirts, jackets and booster fees. We also have fundraisers in place so that most of our families pay nothing.”
Young said fundraisers and being one of the few programs in the Far East Metro area to have a booster club helps him achieve his goal of trying to make the financial burden as light as possible on a student-athlete.
“We rarely have the kids pay all out of pocket,” Young said. “The goal is to not (have) to.”
I kept that in mind as I thought about perhaps one of the more cool side stories in Thursday’s game. That was watching young players from the Covington Galaxy U11 Academy Team walking out with the Eastside varsity boys during pregame player introductions.
It’s where some of the varsity Eagles got their start. And during the game, as some of the Galaxy youngsters were positioned around the pitch, watching the action, you could see the awe in their eyes directed at their older, more seasoned counterparts.
Those young kids yelped, shrieked and bounced around in celebration with the rest of the Eagles and Sharp Stadium when the clock struck zero in the second half, sealing Eastside’s 2-1 win. You know that night left a huge impression on them. It left a huge impression on me.
It showed me that there may be a turning tide in terms of the game’s popularity in this area that’s commensurate with what’s already happening in Greater Atlanta.
The skill is already on the rise, and not just at Eastside. Newton saw one of its first soccer signees in a while last spring in Tariq Davis who picked Andrew College. And a handful of players from Alcovy, especially the girls squad, have gone on to college careers over the last couple of years.
The latest soccer signee from Alcovy is the reigning Covington News girls player of the year, Kaliya Eutsey who signed to Eckerd College in January. And when you see the talent of younger players like Eastside’s Aralyn Everett and others, it appears that the pipeline from Newton County to post-high school soccer careers will only get longer and deeper.
In short, people are starting to see how intense and entertaining soccer is, both as a sport to play and as one to watch. Specifically for Eastside, almost every Twitter-having Eagles player took to the social media platform to express profuse thankfulness for Thursday night’s crowd. But perhaps it was Beam who capsulized the sentiments best of what Thursday night meant and could mean for local soccer.
“Thanks to everyone that came out tonight,” Beam tweeted. “I hope this soccer experience engraved a soccer experience in your life, and hope you come out to more!”
Based on what I saw Thursday night, I’d say the storm warnings for a local soccer explosion are about ready to sound off.
Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor of The Covington News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for tips and story ideas. Follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1.