Photo by Brian Paglia
Lovejoy seniors Derianne Buckley (from left to right), Cheyna Williams and Abria Allen give the Lady Wildcats a rarity for a team from Clayton County — three collegesignees.
When Rory Welsch got the job as Lovejoy girls soccer coach four years ago, he heard a group of freshmen had been wandering the halls of the school boasting of their skills. Skepticism set in. Freshmen could not be speaking this way, let alone have the ability to back it up.
Then Welsch saw Abria Allen, Derianne Buckley and Cheyna Williams perform on the field.
“They were starters from day one,” Welsch said.
Four years later, Lovejoy’s senior trio have become arguably the top players in Clayton County and given the Lady Wildcats a rarity in the annals of girls soccer in the county — three college signees on the same team.
Allen (Georgia Southern), Buckley (West Georgia) and Williams (Vanderbilt) have been at the forefront of Lovejoy’s unprecedented success. The Lady Wildcats have made three straight state-tournament appearances, appear poised to make it four, and are favored to win a second consecutive region championship.
But they crave more. What they don’t want to see happen is how each previous state-tournament appearance has ended — a first- round loss, the earliest possible exit.
“We know what we’re capable of this year,” Allen said, “so from day one we’ve been training the girls and making sure we’ve got the confidence level we need.”
Allen and Williams get most of the attention up front. Together, the forwards have combined for over 180 goals entering this season. Buckley anchors the defense from her sweeper position, and Welsch says “she makes it look like there’s two or three sweepers back there.”
As much as the three hold influence over Lovejoy’s success on the field, they’ve had almost as much influence off it.
Welsch is an assistant coach on the boys basketball team. During the team’s recent state-tournament runs, seasons have overlapped, preventing Welsch from being with the Lady Wildcats when the soccer season begins.
That’s not a problem with Allen, Buckley and Williams on the team.
“I put it on my assistant and those three leaders to lead the pack,” Welsch said. “They’re pushing everybody to get better in practice.”
But their influence goes even deeper than that.
Allen, Buckley and Williams honed their skills playing year-round on the club-soccer circuit. They’ve faced the highest level of competition. Williams has even competed internationally, playing in Argentina, Costa Rica and Spain.
The average girls soccer player in Clayton County lacks that experience. Often times, team rosters are filled with girls who specialize in other sports, but lack the technical knowledge of soccer to be competitive on the state level.
That’s where the trio comes in. They count at least three teammates who have joined a club team, and another who has returned to club soccer after a brief hiatus. They’re playing year-round and favoring soccer over other sports they previously played.
Not surprisingly, Allen, Buckley and Williams have noticed a marked improvement in their teammates’ skill and communication on the field.
“It kind of helps them understand the actual game,” Williams said, “rather than just kick-and-run, as you might call it. They understand the game a lot more mentally.”
Buckley added: “It’s more organized now, because everyone knows their role in the game.”
Welsch sees the improvement, too.
“They’ve rubbed off on the other girls a little bit,” he said. “They’ve rubbed off in terms of work ethic and dedication. They’ve piqued the interest of the other girls.”
What they haven’t been able to do is get Lovejoy past the first round of the state tournament, and with every game that passes during their senior season, that goal feels more and more urgent.
And, yet, their motivation goes even deeper than that.
Surrounded by counties with deep histories of successful soccer, they stayed in Clayton County. They could have joined the Whitewaters, Starr’s Mills and Union Groves nearby, comprised of players they compete with and against on the club level. Instead, they stayed.
As friends who started playing soccer together in the sixth grade, Allen, Buckley and Williams knew the path was set before them to play together at Lovejoy.
And, luckily for the Lady Wildcats, they took it.
“I think it’s an honor for us to be able to show our county what we can do,” Allen said, “and show other counties that with everything our school system’s been through, Lovejoy prevails, and Clayton County can still overcome the negative news.”