Both the Gainesville boys and Buford girls soccer teams reached last season's state championship games and would love nothing more than to avenge last year's title game defeats.
"Losing in a final hurts. To get that close and not win it, I don't think a lot of people understand how hard that is," said Red Elephants coach Elie Viviant, whose team was one of nine northeast Georgia programs to win at least one playoff contest last season, including five state semifinalists (East Hall boys, Flowery Branch girls and Jefferson girls also reached the Final Four)..
That said, the dawn of the 2018 campaign -- which kicks off in earnest this week -- sees Gainesville and Buford approaching from very different positions. The Red Elephants return the bulk of the squad that fell to Chattahoochee 2-0 in the championship, while the Lady Wolves are brimming with youth as they look to avenge a 2-0 loss to McIntosh.
"We've got several girls who played some varsity minutes, but this is probably the youngest team I've ever been a part of in 18 years of coaching," Buford coach Andrew Eager said. "Twenty-seven of the 33 girls in the program right now are sophomores and freshmen."
That does not mean the Lady Wolves are bereft of talent -- far from it -- but that talent will need time to mature.
"There will be nights where we'll be a house on fire and others where we'll be all over the place," said Eager, who lost some 2017 standouts to graduation, but plenty more to the new fact of life in the high school soccer world, where many high-level club players must play with their developmental academies 11 months of the year. "It seems like everybody lost their star players -- Westminster lost 10 players -- and a lot of the kids are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They want to play for their schools, but they don't have a choice. It really hurts the high level of play, but everybody's dealing with it, and it's levelling the playing field."
The school spirit at Buford continues to keep some club stars involved, though not actually on the playing field.
"We're going to have some Division I-level players acting as managers and ball girls this season just because they wanted to keep involved with the program," Eager said. "And we're still good; our sophomores will just have to play and lead. We're going to have fun with it and figure things out."
Still ranked No. 2 in Class AAAAA, the Lady Wolves will look to players like Eva Sherman, Arden Paulino, Sydney Borgelt, and Natalie Maurer to develop on the fly.
"We're going to be forced to work and get better, but that's the fun part; we've been spoiled with the amount of talent we've had here, and now as coaches we're going to have to coach more rather than just manage," said Eager, whose Lady Wolves kick off the regular season tonight against North Gwinnett. "We're looking forward to the challenge."
Gainesville's boys too are looking forward to seeing what 2018 brings -- though the second-ranked Red Elephants have a pretty good idea of what they are capable considering they return nine of 11 starters from last year's impressive run.
"We're starting at a higher point than we did last year for sure," Viviant said. "We should be pretty solid all around."
A core group of standouts, including Cristian Rodriguez (who scored both Red Elephant goals in overtime of last season's semifinal win over Dalton), reigning Region 8-AAAAAA Player of the Year Erick Serratos, Pedro Santos, Devin Velasquez and Alejandro Covarrubias each return to help form the backbone of a squad with high expectations.
"We want to win the region, that never changes, because you want to be home for as many playoff games as possible; just look at what happened last season. We were undefeated at home in the playoffs and we lost the one game on the road," Viviant said. "And we want to push for everything this year. Last year was so bad to get that close and not win it. We had some big guys crying after that game, and they want to get back to have that chance again.
"I'm not sure how tough the region will be for sure yet, but you can bet it will be strong. And then teams like Chattahoochee, Dalton and Cambridge will be very tough in class."
There's also a tough non-region schedule to navigate, including tonight's opener at Class AAAAAAA No. 1 Meadowcreek, followed by a trip to Class AAAA No. 5 Oconee County, and Hall County's own version of El Clasico, as the Red Elephans travel to rival and Class AAAAA power Johnson -- which will be looking to bounce back from last year's shocking first-round playoff exit -- on Feb. 23.
"We're still working on adapting how we play in certain situations, but we're hopeful," Viviant said.