By Zack Huffman
The players from North Clayton's boys' soccer team waited along the side of the field at the Lovejoy Soccer Complex. They had to wait until Morrow and Newnan finished before they could take the field for their final game of the season.
A small circle of about six Eagles players warmed up by attempting to bounce a soccer ball between them without letting it touch the ground.
The players laughed and tossed jokes at each other as they kicked the ball, generally having a good time, leaving no indication that what had begun as a promising season full of success was just hours away from ending with a whimper, regardless of the outcome.
From the beginning of the season, North Clayton was looking to make up for last season's heartbreak.
Last season was coach Matthias Ezenwaka's first with the Eagles. Immediately, he was able to oversee a dramatic change in North Clayton's performance on the field.
The Eagles bulldozed through the season going 10-0-1 into the 4-AAAA region quarterfinals. That was when Baldwin sent the Eagles home with a 1-0 upset before they had the chance to even get to the state tournament.
This year would be different.
At the midpoint of the season, the Eagles were flying high, having only taken losses from North Springs and region 4-AAAA powerhouse Forest Park. More often than not, when North Clayton won, it was by a large margin.
Although they were not undefeated in the regular season, as they were last year, the Eagles were in a re-aligned region where there would be no tournament. They just had to finish among the top four to earn a seed in the state playoffs.
Their opportunities changed when it was brought to the attention of the Georgia High School Association that North Clayton's boys soccer team had an ineligible player on its roster.
According to Ezenwaka, one of the players on the team who had been enrolled at North Clayton the year before, was transferred to Flint River in Jonesboro.
Flint River is described on the Clayton County Board of Education's website as a special education, alternative school that is designed to help students who are struggling in a regular school environment.
Because Flint River is an alternative school, students who are classified as "open campus students" often have the school they previously came from listed as their "home school," as was the case with the player on North Clayton's soccer team.
GHSA guidelines restrict open campus students from competing in GHSA-sanctioned athletic events. This included soccer games.
"We didn't know that he couldn't play," said team captain Michael Oni. "We thought we could use him because he still represented North Clayton High School."
Unfortunately for Ezenwaka, he was not aware of this rule which is why he used the player in at least four key region wins in March.
As a result, the Eagles were forced to forfeit those four wins, affectively dropping them to the bottom of the 4-AAAA rankings with just two region games left on their schedule.
"This was supposed to be the year," said Ezenwaka in regards to his squad's chances at making a run in the state tournament.
According to Ezenwaka, had he known the player was ineligible he would have removed the player from the team as soon as he could.
His sentiments were echoed by seniors Folly Kangnigan and Oni.
"We thought this was our year," said Kangnigan. "The team is a great team. Soccer is something everyone enjoys on this team. Everybody has a passion for the game."
In last Friday's game against Griffin, seven different players were able to score goals.
According to Oni, the forfeits were especially tough for the seniors who will not return next season.
"I can't believe we are not going to the playoffs. We had the team this year to defeat any team," he said.
" It feels like we were cheated. We now know what it feels like to work hard all year and just lose it suddenly. It feels bad, real bad."
Next season, North Clayton will come back with even more reason to prove itself on the field.
If Friday's game against Griffin was any indicator, the Eagles will be back to compete. Of the ten goals scored, just two came from seniors.
"They're losing six seniors this year, but I really believe in them," said Oni, had explained that he has complete faith that the Eagles are not through being a dominating force on the soccer field.