When the 2021 season started for the North Atlanta soccer team there were fears that the pandemic might impact its season. There was also a widespread perception that a team that had lost 11 seniors from the prior season was entering into a lean rebuilding year.
But in the face of challenges, a focused team has prevailed and with a 3-1 home victory over Lovejoy on March 25, the Dubs soccer team secured the program’s first-ever region championship. The win on Thursday over the visiting Leopards meant the Warriors notched a perfect 5-0 run in region play and are now the official 6A region 4 champions.
The region crown represents the next significant accomplishment in what is actually turning out to be a banner year for North Atlanta Athletics. More than five region championships have already been won in the 2020-21 school year by Warrior teams in their respective sports, and spring competition is pointing toward more possible trophy hardware.
Varsity soccer head coaches Epimenio Jimenez, Chris Mucha and Jack Stenger said they’ve seen this year’s unit gell at the right time and never lose sight of overarching program objectives. In order to prepare the team for region play, the coaches scheduled tough competition early on in the season. These early match-ups against tough draws like the Atlanta International School, Cambridge and Lassister saw the team play close in each game. These competitive tests allowed for fine-tuning of the team’s attacking style of play, and meant the team was primed for battle against tough region opponents.
Team members say a gutsy region victory over a powerful Tucker team on March 5 was a particular turning point for the season. In the away game, the Dubs found themselves down by a score of 0 to 2 and overcame the deficit to secure a 3 to 2 victory. The winning goal came from senior captain Danny Gardner, a three-year starter who — during a stellar last high school campaign — has seemingly carried his soccer-playing brothers on his shoulders. “If ever there was a captain and a senior who’s had a stand-out year it’s this young man,” said team head coach Epimenio Jimenez, who is in his sixth year as a program coach. “Danny has just willed this team to win and I don’t know where we’d be without him.”
Another key win came over a talented Lakeside team on March 19. A 2 to 1 victory put the Warriors in the driver’s seat in terms of winning the region championship. The physical game was tied at the end of stoppage play, and during overtime, the Dubs got an opportunity to take a penalty kick. It was Gardner who stood at the line and converted the clutch winning goal for the team to cap off the hard-fought victory. “The Lakeside game was a pivotal moment in our season,” said junior fullback Henry Sullivan. “It showed that when we work together as a team and persevere, we will see positive results.”
The team said hard work was what carried the team through the 2021 season. Team leaders also said they played with particular focus this season to honor the efforts of the program’s Class of 2020 seniors who lost much of their final season owing to a pandemic-shortened campaign. And the reality that the varsity team had suffered even recent lean seasons free from many region victories made this year’s championship all the more sweet. “It’s all been a long time coming,” said Gardner. “Soccer can be a cruel sport and there were lean years where we dropped a lot of close ones. But this year we managed to get those big victories when we needed them. It’s been so much fun playing with this great group of guys.”
Gardner is joined in team leadership by his fellow captains, senior midfielder Brian Justo and junior centerback Ryan Soyah. Gardner, the team’s nominee for region player of the year, leads the team in scoring with 13 goals and is nearing a North Atlanta season record. Known for his fearless and fierce play, he is highly esteemed by his teammates. “Danny is just so good it is ridiculous,” said junior midfielder Alex Lilly. “Even my dad who watched some of our games from the stands could tell that he was special and could play at the next level. He didn’t even get the chance to play in all of our games and almost has the goal record. It truly is something special to get to play with a guy like this.”
The Dubs can now look forward to the playoffs which will begin on April 23. There will be plenty of tests there, but for the moment team members are enjoying their shared achievement. “As we went into the season we focused on one goal: To win this region and to make it to the playoffs,” said head coach Mucha. “There’s more hard work ahead for them and we’ll get back to it on Monday at practice. But in the meantime, we’ve told them to enjoy the feeling. It’s been a long time coming.”
In an unpredictable season, the Dubs have won clutch victories and have kept up their belief in themselves. And in showing such a fighting spirit, team members have collectively lived up to this season’s motto — North Atlanta Soccer: “The Spirit Never Dies.”
North Atlanta Varsity Boys Soccer
6A Region 4 Champions
Head coaches: Epimenio Jimenez, Chris Mucha, Jack Stenger
Team captains: Daniel Gardner, Brain Justo, Ryan Soyah
Program parents: Erica Fanelli, Hyen Sung, Nicky Case
Program sports information coordinator (team parent): Brian Pierce
Team managers: Tyler Hubbard, Sophie Peck
School athletic director: Andre Regan (2020-21 APS Athletic Director of the Year)
School administrator over athletics: Assistant Principal Lincoln Woods