NEW ORLEANS — When Academy of Sacred Heart sophomore M.J. Williams made the varsity soccer team, she knew she had a daunting task.
Williams would be charged with keeping up a winning tradition that includes three straight Division III state championships and, before that, a slew of title game appearances.
In a program that cultivates a continuous stream of talent from the ground up, Williams became a part of something special when she suited up.
She’ll do so again Friday, when second-seeded ASH squares off against No. 1 seed Loyola Prep at Tad Gormley Stadium for the state title. Williams acknowledged she and her fellow underclassmen feel pressure to keep the winning going. But, she added, being part of that tradition means joining a tight-knit soccer family that nurtures younger members as players and people.
Above all, she said, it boils down to coming together as a unit to aim for the ultimate prize — and savor the feeling that comes with it.
“During the game I think about how fun it will be if we win,” Williams said. “I know that if we work hard, we’ll have fun doing it.”
Meanwhile, Sacred Heart senior Sarah Martin will be shooting for her fourth state title. As an upperclassman, Martin looked back to the time she first donned a varsity uniform, and, like Williams, she said the ASH tradition is a supportive one, not a daunting one.
“When I first came on the team, everybody was really welcoming,” she said. “We just have a camaraderie. It doesn’t matter when you come in. You could be a freshman or a senior, you know that you will be there for each other.”
Longtime Sacred Heart coach Tooraj Badie said that atmosphere begins at the entry level of the program, filters through the middle-school squads and culminates with the varsity team.
“The talent keeps coming through the middle school,” Badie said.
“We’ve been so fortunate that the talent keeps coming. We don’t seem to miss a beat (each year).”
For example, this season ASH’s sixth-grade squad, led by coach Lynn Bradley, won the metro championship by going undefeated and not allowing a goal all season.
In a few years, many of the girls who made up that sixth-grade team this season will become part of the varsity team, where they’ll find a pressure to succeed like their predecessors but also an atmosphere of encouragement that will make them feel at home.
That’s a feeling that senior captain Miranda Lee has felt during her tenure in the Sacred Heart soccer program, including her years at the varsity level.
“A lot of us have been playing together for so long,” she said. “That’s part of why we’re good every year. It helps the seniors be even better, and our coaches help a lot, too.”
Lee knows that a fourth straight state title would be a special accomplishment, but as a team, the players also understand that such an achievement will come like every other victory ASH has claimed, whether during the regular season or the playoffs.
“There is pressure,” Lee said. “We want to win because it’s never been done before. But we have to focus like it’s any other game. We can’t go in there scared about disappointing people.