The loss of the remaining half of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic was a big blow in more ways than for the Apalachee girls’ soccer team.

Not only was the team deprived of the chance to make another postseason run a year after reaching the Sweet Sixteen, but the Lady Wildcats also graduated 13 players off that squad, putting the program in the unusual position of having to rebuild.

“Losing those seniors was program-changing, and it has basically brought us to thinking about and approaching things through a different scope,” said Apalachee coach Omeed Behzadi, who is now in his third year with the program and is now the primary head coach after sharing the duties the last two seasons with long-time Apalachee coach Paul Thornton, who left to start the soccer program at Barrow Arts and Sciences Academy.

While the roster still includes mostly juniors and seniors, several of those players have only played at the junior-varsity level entering this season.

“We had most of those seniors starting and playing varsity the last four seasons and now we have to focus on younger players and are just having to bring out the youth,” Behzadi said. “They’re doing their best. It’s just a big change from JV to varsity for a lot of them, and they have to take that extra step.”

Apalachee’s cupboard isn’t entirely bare, as the Lady Cats do have a few returning starters, particularly on the offensive end. Senior Emily Hale is a four-year starter at forward and is coming off a junior campaign that saw her score 9 goals and notch 3 assists in 11 matches. Junior forward Victoria Johnson (4 goals, 2 assists last season) also returns while senior Meg Folsom is back in the midfield.

Most of the youth movement and growing pains, Behzadi said, will come on defense, where junior Natalie Allen is the lone returner on the back line. Junior Emily Dell, who took over as the starting goalkeeper midway through last season when Sarah Currey moved back to forward, also returns.

“Defensively, we’re going to be challenged extremely hard early on,” said Behzadi, whose team dropped its preseason scrimmage last week 8-0 to powerhouse Wesleyan, the 2019 GHSA Class A Private champion, and was expecting another tough test in its regular-season opener Tuesday, Feb. 2, at Buford.

The Lady Wildcats will host Oglethorpe County in their home opener Friday, Feb. 5, at 5:30 p.m. and then will play four more non-region matches before opening their new seven-match Region 8-AAAAA slate Feb. 26 at Greenbrier.

Behzadi believes the team can come around and compete in the new region, but that it will take time and patience as the new players adjust to a higher speed of play.

“It’s going to be a challenging but, hopefully, eventually a very rewarding one,” he said.

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