By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Hank Furry likes the underdog role. His Graham G-Girls fit the part.
When the Group 2A state soccer tournament is held next week — the semifinals in Salem and the finals in Radford — Graham is the one team that might seem out of place.
Not because Graham doesn’t have talented athletes on the pitch, but their athletes play other sports too, which is a good thing.
The difference is that Radford, George Mason, and possibly even Maggie Walker Governor’s School in Richmond, all of whom will join the G-Girls in the Final Four, have players dedicated almost exclusively to one sport.
Graham, being the size school it is, needs its select few athletes to play as many sports as possible to remain competitive.
Radford, which improved to 22-0 with a 6-1 win over Graham in the Region 2A-West championship game on Thursday, is primarily full of soccer players, which works fine for Bobcats’ coach Darryl Gillespie, whose own two stepdaughters are part of his team.
He understands the plight of the G-Girls, and certainly recognizes the advantages his Bobcats have.
“Graham has got a good program, I wish them the best and it is really nice to have competition locally and have such nice facilities to play,” Gillespie said. “I am a very lucky person, all the soccer training is done before they get to me. I just have to get them in the right place and make them play as a team, and sometimes that is not easy.
“This is a good group of girls and some of these girls I coached in travel at a very young age so they know my style. We will see what we have got.”
Meanwhile, Graham (13-4-1) gets much of its athletes from the East River Soccer Association, which develops the talent for many of the area teams.
No complaints, but recreational soccer isn’t the same as travel soccer and traveling the state and region playing against comparable players, all looking to attract the eyes of college coaches and scouts.
Jessica Woodie and Forrest Yates are just two Graham soccer players from the past who have been part of travel teams.
“His team is a product of girls that play travel soccer kind of the equivalent to AAU basketball, we don’t have any girls that are playing soccer 12 months out of the year,” Furry said. “It is totally two different programs.
“East River feeds our girls program. We have good quality coaching in the recreational league, but it is recreational soccer and you have got girls coming out of a recreational program that is trying to compete against girls that are playing and actively seeking to try and get recruited at the college level so it is a huge difference.
“Some of these girls play on teams where the coaches are the assistant coaches at (Virginia) Tech or at Radford so they are playing 12 months out of the year.”
Led by Woodie, a high-scoring soccer presence, the G-Girls reached this same point in 2012, surprising everyone but themselves by defeating Clarke County 2-1 in the Group AA semifinals before dropping a 4-0 decision to George Mason, which has won the last six state titles and eight of the last 12 since 2002. Graham finished that season with a stellar 19-2 record.
Furry knows the G-Girls will face the same low level of expectations — at least from everyone but themselves — when they arrive at Salem for the semifinals against George Mason on Friday.
“You have got to look at it from our perspective, the three schools that are in it are all anchored by huge travel programs so we really are the little school that represents, a lot of people didn’t expect us to be here,” Furry said. “A few years ago that first round of the state the second team we played, they didn’t expect us to be anything because they came out in one of those high-powered metro areas and we shocked the world with a win.”
Don’t count out the G-Girls to do it again, although the G-Girls will be without starting goalkeeper Christina Mounzer, who has returned to her native Lebanon. Furry has complete confidence in placing McKenzie Meade in her place.
In fact, the G-Girls will be plenty busy beginning on Monday in preparing for the task ahead.
“We are going to practice every day building up to it,” Furry said. “We are not going to change our routine, our practices. Right now we go at it 45 minutes pretty hard, we spend 15 minutes of practice talking about it and we try to finish in an hour and a half. That is my commitment to the girls.”
Furry, who is constantly yelling instruction and encouragement to his players, all while carrying his trusty clipboard on the sidelines, isn’t one to worry much about statistics, shots on goal or any other useful material that can be shared about his team.
“I am not one of those coaches that worries about all that,” Furry said. “We try to look like we play soccer, but we are always just trying to work to try and get Ws.”
The same goes for Radford, which is looking to do its part to break George Mason’s hold on the state championship. The last non-Patriots team to claim the title was the Bobcats in 2007.
Radford, which has lost in the state finals four times since 2005, including to George Mason in 2009 and ‘10, will play upstart Maggie Walker on Friday, and would then face Graham or George Mason, a team that defeated the Bobcats 2-1 in the state semifinals last season.
George Mason then defeated Stuarts Draft 4-0 last year to claim the crown.
“They beat us 2-1 last year in the semifinals, we were definitely the second best team in the state,” said Gillespie, who has just two seniors and nine sophomores and freshmen on his squad. “They had five freshmen too last year so they didn’t get any worse, they only got better.
“We threw it at them last year, scored first, they ended up beating us 2-1. We will have something for them, I am not going to say we can beat them, but we will give it a heck of a try.”
Graham is also a young team. The G-Girls graduated six players, but had as many as seven freshmen on the field together during regional play.
The future looks bright, but so does the present.
“We’re going to go down there and just continue to play our style of soccer,” Furry said. “We are not looking for how well we look, we are going to go down there and see if we can be the little pebble that can make the big wave.”
If the G-Girls aren’t successful and return to Bluefield without a state crown, the alternative isn’t all that bad.
“We have got to come out and jump on this team really quick and hopefully we can sit back and play defense,” Furry said. “On the other side of the coin, the worst case scenario is we are the fourth best team in the state so that is not too bad either, not when you have this many freshmen.”
• Graham tennis will also be involved in state tournament action next week.
The Graham girls team, which finished second to Gate City in Region 2A-West, will play Region 2A-West champion Wilson Memorial next week at Luray, Va.
Gate City and George Mason are the other two teams involved, with the state title to be determined on Saturday at Radford University.
Rebecca Day, a senior at Graham, will also compete in the state singles tournament next week, having finished second to Rosa Smith of Gate City in Region 2A-West action earlier this week.
Day will play Region 2A-East champion Kynadi Mauney of George Mason on Thursday at Radford University. The winner will meet either Smith or Lee’s Lexi Chadwell for the singles titles later that day.
Brian Woodson is the sports editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at bwoodson@ bdtonline.com or on Twitter @bdtwoodson.