George Washington junior keeper Garrett Phillips (left) leads the state in shutouts with 14.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- George Washington is nothing if not resilient.The Patriots, the defending Class AAA state champions, started the season with huge holes all over the field after seven starters graduated. Then it took GW coach Tom Hopper 15 games to hit on the starting lineup. The Patriots then showed their mettle in winning their sectional and regional by identical 1-0 scores.GW (16-5-2) now finds itself on the cusp of playing for another title when it begins play Tuesday in the boys state soccer tournament semifinals at the YMCA Youth Sports Complex in Beckley. (See Page 2B for pairings and schedule.)"For a bit there it looked like it wasn't going to happen,'' Hopper said. "I think we found a way to score a goal or two, our defense is getting a lot stronger and that's helped tremendously. If you're going to be playing good soccer, this is the time to be playing it.''The Patriots, who finished sixth in the final state coaches association rankings, won their first three games then encountered a rough patch, going 3-3-1 over the next seven games."It took us a while to figure out where we were going to put everybody,'' said Hopper, who guided the Patriots to their first title in 2007. "By the 10th game we thought we had it and didn't, and we had to keep making a few more changes."I think it was kind of a shock for us that it took so long. The season was almost over before we felt like we settled in. It was difficult because some of [the returning players] haven't had much playing time with the varsity and others none. It took our kids a little while to adjust, I think.''GW seemed to be on track with a seven-game unbeaten streak, but then dropped back-to-back games to No. 2 Huntington 3-0 and 3-1 toward the end of the season. Since then the Patriots have won four straight, including a 1-0 win over No. 7 South Charleston on penalty kicks in the sectional final and a 1-0 triumph against No. 20 Woodrow Wilson in the regionals.
"We had a couple of tough games and I think the guys finally realized it's going to take more effort,'' said Hopper, who only has two senior starters. "There are other teams out there better than us and we better find a way if we're going to do it."I think they finally started to understand that we want them to play simple. The more they play simple - one touch and a pass, find the open man, don't try to force the ball - we seem to be a much better team.''Junior Noah Miller is GW's top scorer with 12 goals while senior Garrett Warner has 10 and junior Peter Nelson nine. Junior keeper Garrett Phillips has a state-best 14 shutouts.The Patriots have only scored four goals in three postseason games, but have found a way to stay alive. GW's postseason run has featured a different hero at each elimination level. Senior defender Caleb Barnette scored the winning goal during the second round of sudden-death penalty kicks against SC. Daniel Glines' tallied only his fourth goal of the year versus Woodrow."I'm proud of the way the kids are playing,'' said Hopper.Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4811.