by Andrew Stark
After injuries, senior Shuler has become leader of Myers Park soccer squad
The Southwestern 4A always has been a tough girls soccer league, as at least one team from the conference has advanced to the state semifinals in each season since 2007.
Ardrey Kell has won the 4A Western Regional title three of the past four years and again is expected to make a run for the state championship. However, entering the 2012 season, another Southwestern 4A squad was projected as a serious contender: Myers Park.
The Mustangs had won 15 games in each of the previous two years, and last season reached the third round of the state playoffs. In addition, they returned three all-region players – senior Emily Shuler, junior Caroline Alexander and sophomore Suzanne Arant – who were counting on having big individual seasons along with senior Karen Goretta.
However, in tryouts two weeks before the season, Arant tore a ligament in her knee and was lost for the year. Then, in the first game of the season, Goretta suffered the same injury, and suddenly the Mustangs’ roster was a lot thinner than expected.
“Those were absolutely critical injuries for us,” said Myers Park coach Bucky McCarley. “We have been working from a deficit since Day 1, and I think it has taken some time to get back our confidence. We have sort of been licking our wounds for a little bit.”
In the absence of Arant, who started every game a year ago, and Goretta, who McCarley was counting on to be the team’s leading scorer, there have been plenty of players who have stepped up.
Alexander, Virginia McNeil, Jenny Little, Emery Floyd, Lindsey Parkhurst and Megan Goodwin have all improved their games, and goalkeeper Sara Hall has been phenomenal, allowing just seven goals in 18 games.
But Shuler, a high-scoring forward, has been the key to the Mustangs maintaining their high level of play and is a big reason their record stands at 13-2-3 on the year.
“It has been an adjustment for me from the second I had to walk Karen off the field and put her in the car,” Shuler said. “We got the win, and I had a great game (three goals, one assist versus Mallard Creek on Feb. 27), but it hasn’t been the same since then.”
Shuler said she has noticed the weight that comes with shouldering a larger role but added that it has been great seeing her teammates step up, with many of them willing to “run through walls” for the betterment of the team.
Although she’s seen an increase in coverage, such as when Providence double-man-covered her in a game this season, Shuler’s happy with the way the Mustangs have clung together and overcome the obstacles they’ve faced.
“We have gotten a lot better this year,” Shuler said. “Mostly, each individual has taken responsibility and done a good job. We have definitely gained the mentality of (the motto) we put on the back of our shirts – “Lean on me” – because it involves everyone on this team, and we really count on each other.”
That team-first attitude has lent itself well to a squad that was expected to be really good but also figured it had time to adjust before injuries quickly forced players into larger roles.
McCarley said he was counting on having players learn from his seniors in mentoring roles, who he knew were good players, leaders and teachers.
He kept 25 players on the roster, an unusually high number, so the younger players could learn from the strong senior class.
Now, with the injuries, the players who were expected to slowly progress have been forced into action sooner, but they have done a good job.
McCarley said Shuler, who’s been on the varsity team since her freshman season, has definitely stepped up her game.
“She has always been a great student and a versatile and highly skilled player,” McCarley said. “This year she has been a true leader, another assistant coach on the field. That is something you want from your seniors but don’t always get. The kids are in high school and sometimes don’t truly understand leadership and what you expect, but she has been fantastic.”
Shuler, who has signed with Lipscomb University (Tenn.), sports a GPA north of 4.50 and said she plans on majoring in children’s ministry and having a minor in Spanish. While she said going to college seven hours away could be difficult, she’s up for the test of playing on the next level and living so far from home.
“I look at it as accepting another challenge,” Shuler said.
This season has certainly been a challenge on the field for the Mustangs, but McCarley believes Shuler and her teammates have handled it better than expected. McCarley said he feels the team used the injuries as a crutch to lean on early this year but now believes his players are really close to being the team they envisioned before the season, even though Arant and Goretta will not be suiting up again this year.
“(The injuries) explain why we have been one goal short against AK (in a tie and a loss) and against Hough (tie) and Providence (loss and tie),” McCarley said. “But we are so ridiculously close to being one goal ahead that all we need is the confidence that we are going to dictate the outcome.
“We can do it – we just have to break through, and we see the playoffs as our next challenge and chance to prove ourselves.”
As the regular season winds down, the Mustangs are counting on getting their active players 100 percent healthy and making a playoff run.
Shuler said if they play Ardrey Kell again, they have to be more technically sound but are more than capable of beating the Knights. Shuler and her teammates, she said, would welcome another shot at Providence, against whom the Mustangs were tantalizingly close to winning both games.
While she realizes there is lots of talent in the state tournament, including East Forsyth, which has knocked the Mustangs out of the playoffs the past two seasons, winning a state title isn’t out of the realm of possibility for Myers Park.
“It’ll take a lot to win states, but it is possible,” Shuler said. “If we can play with everything that we have, I think it’s possible. It will be a huge mountain to climb, but we have overcome a lot so far. So why not?”
While the Mustangs have a decent shot at ending the season matching the expectations they had before injuries set them back, the key is Shuler, and she will not back down from a challenge.
“Emily has been fantastic,” McCarley said. “She has learned a great deal from the seniors that have come before her, and she is one of those players who leads but is also receptive to criticism.
“She understands that she is not perfect and she needs to guide others, and her leadership in her senior year has lived up to, and exceeded, my expectations. She has been terrific.”