River Ridge was a crossroads after its loss to Pope. It had just completed a 1-3 stretch and was an unspectacular 3-4-1 on the young 2022 season. Coach Lee Whitaker said losing the Feb. 15 game to Pope was the best thing that could have happened at that point.

An incredible run followed.

The Lady Knights rattled off five consecutive wins from Feb. 22 to March 12, starting with a resounding 10-0 win over Rome. River Ridge finished the year at 13-8-1 overall, and Whitaker earned a 2022 Cherokee County Coach of the Year selection from his peers because of those efforts.

“We had dropped a couple of games, and it was late goals,” Whitaker said. “To me, it was after the Pope game when we had a big come-together moment. It was a gut check. We were going one way or the other. They responded with each other, and everything was different after that.”

Whitaker said this year’s River Ridge team was by far the best he has ever coached. It showed between its motivation and the response to adversity. It was also an exceptionally talented roster, headlined by senior striker Ines Obradovac.

However, the Lady Knights did not need much extra motivation going into 2022. They finished 13-5 last season but missed the playoffs because of a tiebreaker in favor of Chattahoochee and Riverwood.

“There was this feeling of unfinished business from last year,” Whitaker said. “We missed out because of a tiebreaker, and there was a lot of drive in the offseason. We have so many seniors, and the biggest discussion was about legacy. How far did we want to elevate the program?”

River Ridge’s schedule did it no favors as Region 7AAAAAA accounted for three of four teams in the state semifinal pool. The Lady Knights beat strong teams throughout the regular season, including Centennial (12-4-1) and Ashley Ridge (14-5-1).

In the first round of the playoffs, River Ridge matched up with the No. 1 seeded Dalton, which went undefeated (7-0) in Region 5AAAAAA play. The Lady Knights emerged with a 2-0 victory before taking down Evans and Richmond Hill next.

“They were hungry,” Whitaker said. “Over the course of the year, they gelled and molded into a team. They took this season to a whole new level. They were easy to motivate and easy to push toward success. They wanted it bad.”

What Whitaker remembers most about his 2022 team is the character of his players and how much they cared about their craft. He credited his assistant coaches with helping produce wins on the field and his players with turning a slow start into something special.

“These girls were so close, not just on the field, but off it,” Whitaker said. “They stuck up for each other, and they supported one another. Honestly, I think that is the biggest thing. It is so much more enjoyable to have a successful season with players who really care.”

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