The moment wasn’t lost on Larry Fowler.
“Six years ago, could you have imagined this?” the Alcoa assistant coach asked.
In a word: No.
Six years ago, Goddard Field would have needed some new nets afterward.
Six years ago, Bearden would have lit Alcoa up.
Last season’s Class A/AA runners-up didn’t quite slay the dragon, but the Tornadoes gave more than a good accounting of themselves in a 1-0 loss to the Bulldogs in the season opener for both teams on Monday.
“We started so well, and we haven’t been doing that in the preseason,” Alcoa head coach Tom Gorman said. “I was encouraged. We had some opportunities, and their keeper came up with some big saves.”
Gorman’s guarded enthusiasm was muted even more so a day later. Arch-rival Maryville blanked Heritage, 10-0, in the opener for both on Tuesday at Maryville College, but it wasn’t the score that concerned Gorman.
The Rebels return a power-packed lineup from a team that took Farragut to the wire in last season’s District 4AAA semifinal. The Admirals denied Maryville a shot at its first district crown, 1-0, with Farragut going on to claim its fourth Class AAA state title at season’s end.
Most of those Rebels are back, so who’s Caleb Lucas?
That’s what Gorman wanted to know.
“Must be nice -- sub a kid on in his first high school match, and he scores four,” he said.
The sophomore Lucas, on in replacement for injured starter Bradley Fischer, delivered a head-turning display, his Texas hat trick pacing an onslaught in which seven Rebels tallied goals. Worrisome for Gorman, whose Tornadoes will meet the Rebels on the same field in a month’s time, is that Fischer, a senior, has been cleared to return to play.
The Alcoa/Maryville clash April 23 will mark the first time the two meet with both holding legitimate state tournament aspirations. The men at the helm of the two programs, namely Gorman and Feather, are a big part of the why.
“If it can help us get better for our run, that’s all I worry about,” Gorman said. “I’d love to have them and us down there for state.”
Former Alcoa athletics director Rob Daugherty didn’t mince words after Gorman took the reins from Fowler six years ago. Gorman said Daugherty informed him Alcoa was “putting an emphasis on soccer.”
“He said, ‘Whatever you need, you get,’” Gorman said.
The Tornadoes immediately began scheduling some of the areas top teams, Alcoa’s record Gorman’s first season - 5-9-1 - reflecting the increase in competition. As the talent got better, the Tornadoes began to push many of those teams. Last season, Alcoa (18-6-1) knocked off defending state champion Catholic in the region semifinal to reach sectionals for the first time.
The Tornadoes’ state tournament run included an upset of No. 1-ranked Chattanooga Christian in the opening round - in a sudden-death, penalty-kick shootout no less. Led by the lighting-quick Derrick Brodus and the playmaking Austin Stone, Alcoa has become a soccer program no one any longer takes lightly.
“If you watch them when they get fired up, they’ve got a smile on their face, and they’re loving life,” Gorman said.
Senior Eric Lusinger had one of the state tournament’s biggest goals last year, his launch in the waning minutes of regulation forcing overtime in the match with Chattanooga. Also back are seniors Roberto Castro and Harrison Powell, both key in playing Bearden to a scoreless tie at the half. Powell looked especially good at left back. Junior Jonathan Burkhalter is sneaky good at one of the midfield spots.
Sophomore goalkeeper Tyler Reed stopped 15 Bearden shots, a feat on par with Lucas’ explosive opening. Reed’s performance is of perhaps greater significance. Of four Tornado seniors lost after last year’s run, none was bigger than All-State goalkeeper Adrian Womac. In the shootout with Chattanooga, Womac blocked the decisive penalty kick in the 6-5, shootout victory.
In a decision not made until days before the opener, Reed won out over a pair of upper classmen to succeed Womac in goal.
“If we had all three together, we’d have another Adrian,” Gorman said, “but Adrian is gone. When (Reed) made the first save (against Bearden), I wasn’t nervous anymore and neither was he.”
There’s little doubt the Tornadoes have arrived, but enough to claim a first-ever win over the Rebels?
“If we get everybody back to full strength, we’ve got a chance to be good,” Gorman said, “but Maryville is insane (good).”
The Rebels, 14-5-4 a year ago, will have to be. District 4AAA is no ordinary district.
“How do you get in the top half of that district?” Gorman said. “You’re top 10 in the state at that point.”
Teams in search of the District 4AAA title must also go through the three-time state champion Bulldogs. Reclassification has added Catholic this season, along with Knox West.
“It (the addition of the Irish) changes everything,” Feather said. “It used to be we were always going to be in the top three. Now, you can be sixth in our district and be sixth in the state.”
Farragut and Bearden have combined to win seven of the last eight Class AAA crowns. The Rebels, Admirals, Bulldogs, Irish and West each finished the regular season a year ago ranked among the state’s top 10 teams.
If ever a Maryville team was ready to run such a gauntlet, it’s this one, Gorman said.
Junior David Lethco returns as the Rebels top gun. The Maryville forward can strike the ball with freakish power at times. His opening goal at Alcoa last season is still being talked about.
“I think he’s our best goal scorer,” Feather said. “He’s very good with his feet, and he can unleash a cannon.”
The concern, Gorman said, is the Rebels have a lot more than just Lethco.
Seniors Tanner James and Orlando Sanchez also struck for goals in the opener with Heritage. Indicative of the depth Gorman made reference to, so did juniors Kyle Snyder, Josh Maner and Lethco.
“You can’t zero in on our offense,” Feather said, “which will give us a certain amount of unpredictability.”
Lethco, junior Austin Pugh and senior Kory Yarlett collected a pair of assists each. Snyder and fellow junior Marc Fernandez set up a goal each.
“I liked the fact that we were sharing the ball,” Feather said. “A lot of our younger players are letting the game come to them.”
Maryville pushed forward toward the Mountaineer goal in overwhelming numbers Tuesday, often with defenders carrying the ball well into the Heritage end.
“We don’t intend to practice total football, like the Dutch,” Feather said, “but we want our backs to come forward.”
While he wasn’t tested Tuesday, junior goalkeeper Henry Hartsoe, who enters one of the region’s best this season, is why.
“What I like about Henry is he plays his best in big games,” Feather said.
If form holds for both teams, they’ll be few bigger than next month’s showdown with the Tornadoes.