“If we play like we are capable of playing against Columbus Friday night, and we do not let up against Shaw next week, we will finish second in our region and host a first round game in the state tournament,” said AHS coach Jose Cuellar. “However, with a little help from Columbus against Carrollton, we could even finish first.”
This is an amazing scenario considering that the only time the Cougars have been at full strength this season was on their 3-0 win at Rome February 12.
“With all the soccer teams I have been part of in the past 22 years, I have never experienced so many setbacks due to season ending injuries, injuries that require weeks to heal, concussions, and sickness,” Cuellar said.
Both Matt Cooke and Jabari Wolffe are out for the season with knee injuries that will require surgery and over six months of recovery time. Wolffe suffered his injury during the Cougar’s win against LaGrange, while Cooke went down during practice while preparing for the match at Carrollton. Also out for the season and awaiting knee surgery is Ethan McFalls, one of the Cougars’ back up goalkeepers. The loss of Cooke, a starting center back, was strongly felt by the Cougars in their loss against the Trojans.
“When Matt went down the Wednesday before we played Carrollton, we did not have much time to prepare and we had to move some players around trying to find the right combination,” Cuellar said. However, the Cougar’s backline of Patty Gonzalez, Jude Thornton, Stephen Tew, and Jarrett Culberson settled into its role allowing only one goal during the Carrollton match, and zero goals since.
In addition to losing three players for the season, the Cougars also have had to deal with sickness, broken arms, concussions, and even poison ivy.
“It is unreal,” Cuellar said. “For every game I have had to puzzle how to cover the spaces vacated by starters such as Aaron Ayala, Dominique Ruggiero, and Greg Stolz. Luckily, every player on the bench has answered the call and stepped up their play to help keep our hopes of finishing as one of the top two teams in the region.”
Leading the team on the Cougars’ journey are senior captains Drew Gamel, Case Munro, and Ayala. Gamel has only allowed five goals this season, and two of the goals came against East Coweta, where he had to come out of the game with a bruised knee. Ayala leads the team with 10 goals this season, while Munro leads the team with seven assists and two direct goals from corner kicks.
The Cougars’ midfield is led by Kevin Frost and Rugiero, who have also contributed by scoring goals and stopping the opponents’ attacks before they get started. Frost has four goals on the season, three of which came against Troup County Tuesday night. Ruggiero has scored once, directly from a corner kick. Also contributing to Alexander’s scoring this season are Stolz (2), Sanjai Jacob (2), and Sheldon Agyemang (3).
Having these many players with the ability to put goals in the back of the net, and the team’s ability to close up the spaces behind the back line, makes the Cougars a difficult team to play against. “Our main concern for the remainder of the season is to stay healthy and fit, continue to attack and defend as a team, and not lose sight that our goal is to do well during the state tournament,” Cuellar said. “We have quite a few non-region games this season, and we must ensure that we treat those games as what they are: Practice games to get us ready for state.”