– By Chris Goltermann, CowetaScore.com
East Coweta’s girls soccer lineup for Tuesday’s season opener looked almost identical to the one that went undefeated in Region 2-7A last season while finishing 16-3 overall.
Emphasis on the ‘Almost.’
At both ends of the lineup, however, there are key transitions that could play factors into this year’s success. One involves first-year starter Abby Chaves stepping in goal upon the graduation of All-County standout Sam Hoffman.
Chaves put together strong efforts both in the Lady Indians’ 4-1 scrimmage win over Northside-Columbus and a 2-2 tie against LaGrange where the Lady Grangers scored twice on point-blank shots six minutes apart early in the first half.
But an even bigger challenge is the adjustment East Coweta will need to make without the services of injured striker and 2017 Co-Player of the Year Laney Steed, who is using the spring to fully recover from a torn ACL suffered last fall.
It’s an identical injury to one that befell Newnan junior forward Ashleigh Smitherman during a bizarre weekend where both of last year’s scoring leaders in the county — each of whom finished with 38 goals and 12 assists — were forced to undergo surgery.
While Steed could be 100-percent by the GHSA state playoffs, both Beldon and club coaches are in agreement to give the injury a full season to heal
“She might be able to be cleared by the time the playoffs start in May, but I’m not about to ask her to come back just for that,” Beldon said.
The waiting, of course, is the hardest part for Steed, who stayed on her feet for the majority of 80 minutes, cheering her teammates between Beldon and the player’s bench in Tuesday’s opener against LaGrange.
The junior has already made a verbal commitment to a scholarship offer from Florida after taking an official visit last year.
“After surgery, it’s immobility and then it was just instability. Now it’s just watching,” Steed said. “Watching by far is the worst part. You can see. I get into it.”
The Lady Indians took a 1-0 lead on Emily Darnell’s goal off a cross from Ellie Watson before LaGrange — a state-playoff team in Class 4A last year — struck on a turnover and an ill-timed clearing attempt, with both plays sending Lady Grangers in alone on Chaves.
Beldon still had plenty of faith in his back line, which returns senior co-captain Scarlett Steadman and All-County selections Brookelyn Still and Megan Rainey. Kaitlin Novak also joined Tuesday’s starting lineup, with co-captain Lexi Foley also returning on defense.
“Abby got athleticism and she’s got a good back line,” Beldon said of the transition in goal, “so that helps.”
The 38 goals, however, may have to be divided equally among a group of veterans that are capable of making up the difference.
“They’re figuring out how to play without her,” Beldon said. ”You’ve got to play with more speed and figure out how to score.”
Watson, a junior, scored Tuesday’s equalizer on a well-placed shot from at least 25 yards away that found an opening in the top-left corner of the net. She finished last season with eight goals and 11 assists.
Fellow co-captain Adriana Garcia, another junior, notched nine goals and eight assists while returning with Watson to center midfield.
Both Darnell, who had 11 goals and five assists in her varsity debut in 2017, and senior Brittany Dunnavant (eight goals, six assists) are equally capable of coming through in the clutch.
Also capable of making up the difference is senior Anna Painter, while Haley Cox nearly broke Tuesday’s tie in the closing minute on a point-blank shot that was gobbled up by LaGrange senior keeper Maurie White.
Steed had never missed a game to injury until suffering the tear last fall, not to her planting leg, but while kicking through a ball as she heard the infamous ‘pop’ associated with torn ACLs.
“It’s awful. That’s probably the worst pain I’ve ever felt,” said Steed, who has resumed running and wasn’t wearing a brace at Tuesday’s game. “I’m at about four-and-a-half months since surgery. I’ve never been out for a game except sickness, so that’s been hard.”