Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

DAWSON -- What's the old saying about the journey being more important than the destination?

They can write their own version at Terrell Academy, where the girls soccer team has had an unforgettable journey and made history by reaching the GISA state final for the first time. It's not just the state final, it's the Class AA state final, which makes the feat even more impressive for tiny TAE, which is a small Class A school.

"We only have about 100 kids in the whole school,'' midfielder Marlee Locke said. "And here we are playing in the Class AA tournament against these big schools, and we're beating them. Getting to the state title game is awesome.''

Terrell Academy's girls sports program is unrivaled in GISA. The kids from Dawson simply rule the private league in sports. They have already won state titles in softball and basketball, and if there had been a Class A soccer tournament, the Lady Eagles would have run away with it, too.

But to pull off the trifecta, they are forced to play bigger schools -- GISA only has a Class A and AA division in girls soccer -- which are stocked with year-round soccer players. The Lady Eagles overcame Strong Rock Christian in a dramatic and inspirational game in the semifinals Tuesday, winning in sudden death penalty kicks (2-1), and now must face Frederica Academy -- the queens of GISA soccer -- in today's title game.

They meet the Lady Knights at 5 p.m. in Macon and must somehow find a way to stop Morgan Brian, who is the Gatorade Georgia Girls Soccer Player of the Year -- for all classes, public or private -- and also the captain of the U.S. Soccer Federation under-17 women's national team.

Brian has scored 26 goals this season -- but amazingly isn't even the team's leading scorer because she's had to miss games in order to play with the national under-17 team. Jessica Haley leads the Lady Knights with 29 goals.

Frederica also hasn't lost a game in Georgia this year, losing two tournament games to South Carolina teams. And they know all about winning GISA state titles. They have won four of the last five, including the last two by a combined margin of 20-0.

That's going to present a big test for Terrell Academy and first-year coach VeAnn Farr, who took over the team after the first game and has led them to history.

"Coach was telling us that every team has a David (in the Bible tale of David and Goliath),'' freshman defender Lauren Barfield said. "And she said we might be Frederica's David.''

The Lady Eagles have already beaten so many odds to get here, so what's one more hurdle -- albeit a giant one?

"It's a win-win situation for us,'' Barfield said. "We've made history and now we're playing one of the best teams in the state, but we have heart and character, and we'll play to the buzzer.''

And beyond if they have to.

That's how they survived the semifinal game against Strong Christian, which outshot TAE, 28-14, in regulation. The game went into overtime knotted at 1-1, thanks to goalie Millie Foster, who made 16 saves, and then extended the season with a last-second kick-save in the sudden death penalty kick round.

"They're tough. They're mentally tough and physically tough,'' Farr said of her team, which has only one senior. "They had to be able to handle the pressure the other night, and they were able to do it.''

Terrell Academy (9-2-1) lost its first game of the season and then coach Rundy Foster asked Farr, who had been the team's assistant coach the last two years, if she would take over. Farr went home and asked her husband, Ed, if he would be fine with her spending all the extra time as the head coach. Ed Farr didn't have a problem, and Terrell Academy hasn't had any since.

"She knows what she's doing,'' Rundy Foster said. "The results are obvious.''

Farr, a teacher in the Learning Center at Terrell, had a couple of goals when she took the job. The first was simple: Win her first game. The last goal was a bit more involved.

"My goal was for us to go further than we had ever gone,'' Farr said. "I didn't know at the time that they had been to the Final Four (in 2008), but we did it. We made history by reaching the championship game for the first time.''

Farr coached many of the same players years ago when she volunteered to lead the YMCA's 10-and-younger team. That squad won the under-10 tournament, which consisted of teams from Lee County and Albany. Those girls are now juniors at Terrell Academy and make up much of this year's team, including Locke, who leads TAE in scoring with 11 goals, and Foster, who has five shutouts and is second in scoring with nine goals in her time as a midfielder.

Locke, Foster and Alex Barfield, who hit the game-winning shot in the state basketball title game, are the core for all three sports, and eight girls have played on all three teams: Locke, Foster, Alex Barfield, Lauren Barfield, Carly Ely, Maura Milliron, Sarah Bridges and Brittney Spilman.

Spillman, an eighth-grader, collapsed after the semifinal victory against Strong Rock and was taken to a nearby hospital and treated for dehydration, but Farr said Friday that Spilman was fine and would play today.

Farr always knew this team had more than just talent.

"I knew they were good soccer players, but more than that, they are a great group," she said. "They work hard and are very dedicated. I told them I'm very proud of them. These girls have heart. More than anything in the world, they have heart."

But can they win?

"I feel like this is a win either way,'' she said of the title game. "It's a win for the girls, a win for Terrell Academy. It's a great accomplishment.''