When Myers Park’s girls soccer captain Virginia McNeill stepped onto the practice field for the first time to start her senior season, she was well aware that this would be her last shot at bringing a state title to her school.
Even though she’s a senior, McNeill’s soccer career is far from over – she’ll continue to play for Charlotte Soccer Academy and go on to play at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. – but in her mind, there’s nothing that compares to playing as a Mustang. And with the playoffs underway, it’s now or never.
“There’s nothing that compares to playing for your high school,” the Mustangs’ star midfielder said. “You have passion and rivalries and school spirit. You don’t get that anywhere else.”
McNeill has certainly been an integral part of the Mustangs success in recent years, as they’ve gone 67-11-4 in the last four years due in part to her contributions as someone who’s started since her freshman year. But the reigning Southwestern 4A conference champions still haven’t gotten to where they think they should be – playing for a shot at the state title.
During McNeill’s freshman and sophomore year, despite regular season success, the Mustangs weren’t able to make it past the second round of the Class 4A state tournament. Last season, they cruised through the first three rounds but fell to Hough in the semifinals – and it’s a playoff past that McNeill hasn’t been able to get out of her head this season.
“We had this curse for a long time where we couldn’t get past the second round of playoffs,” she said. “Last year we broke that and made it all the way to the state semi-finals. I think that’s what made coming into this year so exciting. We can be in the competition big time and we can beat anyone we play as long as we work hard and play
And the Mustangs have undoubtedly been in the thick of competition – they’re boasting a 20-2 record, which includes 16 shutouts. Now, they’ve got a first round 9-0 win over A.L. Brown under their belt and the hopes of going all the way are starting to take form – something McNeill’s been waiting for all season.
“We’re going into playoffs with the mindset that we have to take it game by game,” McNeill said. “Even if we’re playing a lower-ranked team we have to have the attitude that we’re playing the best team in the state because upsets happen. Anything can happen in one game and it’s one loss and you’re out and it’s over.”
But losses haven’t been the norm for the Mustangs this season. They’ve fallen just twice, to Eurosportscorecard.com’s No.1 4A team in the state, Hough. In both games the Huskies edged the Mustangs, 1-0, in matches that could’ve easily gone either way. But McNeill said the two losses haven’t deterred their focus in the slightest.
“If anything, it’s motivation for us now,” she said. “We’ve always had trouble beating them the last couple of years but it’s never been a blowout. It’s one goal, every time. We’re taking that into the playoffs as motivation knowing that if we can compete with them, we have what it takes to win and finish
And if there’s ever been a Mustang team in recent years that’s had a shot at winning the title, it’s this group. McNeill, a reigning all-state selection, has 20 goals on the season but she isn’t doing it alone as the Mustang midfield is solid all around with Abby Givens (20 goals), Elizabeth Wallace (12 goals, eight assists) and Stewart Parkhurst (10 goals, nine assists). Standout forward Blair Anderes leads the Mustangs with 24 goals and with a defense anchored by Davidson College commit Megan Goodling, Washington & Lee signee Kelsey Jarvis and goalkeeper Elizabeth Raby, the Mustangs have it all – a stout defense, crafty midfield and a lethal attack.
With talent overflowing from the roster, coach Bucky McCarley has his team focusing on keeping possession and breaking down the defense rather than playing as direct as they have in prior years, and it’s a shift that’s working for the Mustangs, creating unparalleled unity on and off the field that shows on the
“One of the things that we’ve been trying to focus on this year is playing possession and passing rather than kick the ball to a certain player and have her chase it down,” McNeill said. “We’re playing possession and as a team, being able to communicate and have team chemistry off the field has really helped us on it.”
“(Coach McCarley) really stresses playing possession,” Anderes said. “It’s helped us realize that we’re one of the best teams in the state and can score on the best teams in the state. We have the mentality that we’re never going to lose.”
It’s that mindset that McNeill said she hopes her team can maintain through the playoffs in order to keep them alive and fighting for a right to play in the championship game – something that she hasn’t yet had the opportunity to do.
“That’s the end goal,” she said. “It’s in the back of our minds, especially given our past. We don’t want to focus solely on that and mess something up along the way but it’s definitely the big picture.”
With Anderes and McNeill playing their best of late, it’d be easy for their big picture mentality to shift focus away from the team and onto themselves. But they’re doing just the opposite – approaching each practice and game with a humble, team-first attitude.
“Virginia’s amazing,” Anderes said, “She plays like a star every game.”
McNeill was quick to jump in, saying the same of her teammate as the dynamic duo quickly began complimenting each other, along with the other girls on the team.
“Yes, we get a lot of recognition but scoring is our job,” McNeill said. “We might be getting a lot of goals but so much of soccer is good defense and we couldn’t do it without them, and the assister does so much of the work as well. We’re just the ones that score but that doesn’t mean we’re the team stars. It’s such a team effort.”
“That’s our mindset right now,” Anderes said. “We’re team focused. If we keep playing the way we have been and making sure we stick together then I really think we can go all the way.”
And McNeill couldn’t imagine a better way to leave her high school career as a Mustang.