In seeking their primary goal this season, the Clay girls soccer team used a combination of dedication and inspiration to achieve it.
The mission was to win a Three Rivers Athletic Association championship. Coach Scott Wamer's team accomplished that last week when the Eagles won 8-0 at Lima Senior, and got news that title contender Notre Dame was eliminated by its 1-1 tie with St. Ursula.
Clay, 8-6-2 overall, placed first in the TRAC with a 6-1-0 record, edging out runners-up Notre Dame and Findlay, which were each 5-1-1.
This was the sweet ending of the story for the team's three captains -- seniors Lindsay Schiavone and Kendyl Christian, and standout junior goalkeeper Alyssa Heintschel -- and their 16 teammates.
The beginning was not so pleasant, and many championship quests often aren't.
Clay had finished 3-3-1 in TRAC play in 2011, with all three losses coming by one goal. So close, but yet so far away. Fifth place in an eight-team league.
That bad taste was the initial inspiration for a team that would graduate only two seniors. The second source of inspiration came in August at the TRAC preseason coaches meeting, when Clay was picked to repeat its fifth-place finish in the annual coaches' poll.
"That was a really big motivator," Schiavone said. "A league title is always one of your goals at the beginning of a season, but when the rest of the teams in the league pick you to be fifth that makes you want to come out on top even more."
In between the two sources of inspiration came the dedication.
In early January -- because most of his players were multi-sport athletes and unable to dedicate much time to soccer training -- Wamer held off-season workouts twice a week beginning at 6 a.m. before school.
Weight training and physical conditioning when they could have still been snug in their beds wasn't exactly an idea that appealed to the girls. But the players bought into the plan and, 10 months later, got their reward.
"That was really hard," Christian said, "but we knew, if we wanted to be the best, that's what we had to do. We worked hard and got through it.
"We work really well together and, when it's crunch time, we know how to buckle down and get to it."
Added Heintschel: "It's a big commitment and a sacrifice that you have to make to get up and be there super early. The main thing we focused on was that this was going to pay off eventually.
"If we kept working through it, it was all going to be worth it. It was something we needed to do for each other. When we won it, I was so happy I wanted to hug every single one of my teammates. We accomplished this together, and none of us could have accomplished this without every single one of the other girls on the team."
The key to Clay's on-field success, according to Wamer, was their ability to possess the ball and play solid defense. This approach helped the Eagles outscore their foes 47-25, including 33-4 against TRAC opponents.
"We focused on improving our defense, and we also had to find ways to score goals," Wamer said. "We knew we had one of the best goalies [Heintschel] in the area.
"We worked on the little things that were going to make us better. The biggest thing we did was basically worked on becoming a team. It sounds like a cliche, but with this group it was true."
Heintschel, who was chosen as the TRAC's top goalkeeper last year, recorded five shutouts in conference play.
The only glitch along the way was a 3-1 loss to Notre Dame. The wins were 4-1 over defending TRAC champ Central Catholic, 1-0 over 2011 Division II state runner-up St. Ursula, 9-0 over Whitmer, 1-0 over Findlay, 9-0 over Fremont Ross, and 8-0 over Lima.
"Beating St. Ursula was huge for us," Heintschel said. "They're always such a strong team, and that gave us confidence that, 'Hey, we can beat some of these other teams too.' Just because they were better than us last year doesn't mean they're going to kill us again. That was the basis of our run in the league."
Added Wamer: "At that point in time, we knew we had a chance, because we had two of the big games down already.
"We didn't beat Notre Dame, but the girls didn't fall apart. We didn't panic. The girls just believed."
Heintschel was well complemented in the defensive zone by Schiavone, at stopper, and by fullbacks Kasey O'Shea and Sarah Row, both seniors, and Haley Kubicki, a junior.
Schiavone also contributed two goals and two assists, while Row added a goal and three assists.
At the offensive end, junior center midfielder Honnah Susor topped the team in scoring during the regular season with eight goals and five assists for 21 total points.
Christian, a striker, was next with seven goals and six assists for 20 points. She capped off a memorable week last Friday when she was named Clay's homecoming queen.
Sophomore Morgan Connor (5 goals, 4 assists) is next on the scoring list followed by sophomore outside midfielder Kara Simon (3 G, 6A), sophomore Kirsten Rettig (4G, 1 A), senior striker Abby Groll (3G, 2 A), and freshman midfielder Haley Hess (3G, 2 A).
Hess and twin sister Hannah Hess (3G), along with Groll, helped Clay's cross country team to a team runner-up finish in last Saturday's TRAC cross country championship meet in Findlay. The Eagles nearly upset Notre Dame, finishing just two points behind (47-49).
Haley Hess placed third individually, and sister Hannah was sixth, each earning first-team All-TRAC honors along with teammate and TRAC individual champion Erin Gyurke. Groll placed 18th in the race.
Rounding out the starting lineup have been senior Megan Soncrant (center midfielder) and junior Kayla Schaefer (midfielder). Other Eagle subs include sophomores Jenna Kidd, Alyssa Heck, Rachel Kuecher, and Hayley Schiavone.
"I've been around four soccer titles and four track and field titles between the boys and girls, but this one was pretty sweet," Wamer said. "One reason was because of that preseason poll, and another was that we had struggled the past few years trying to develop these girls.
"We've taken a lot of lumps and lost a lot of games. But the girls believed in our system, believed in the coaches, and believed in each other."
Contact Steve Junga at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter @JungaBlade.