For a soccer team ranked No. 1 in the nation, this season couldn’t have started off worse for Collins Hill.
Minutes before the opener, Collins Hill lost its back-up goalkeeper in a freak injury in warm-ups. During the game, the No. 1 goalie broke his leg, while a top defender collapsed with a heart problem called “Wolff-Parkinson-White” syndrome.
“It was any coach’s worst nightmare,” Collins Hill coach Drew Prentice said. “It got to point where it was like, ‘OK, what’s going to happen next?’”
Fortunately, ambulance sirens haven’t been heard at any other games, and all players are expected to make full recoveries. The Gwinnett powerhouse is off to an 8-0 start, while shuffling around personnel to fend off a few upset bids.
The Eagles have also ascended to the No. 1 spot in two national polls for high school soccer — ESPN The Rise and the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA).
“More than anything, the ranking is going to be a big test for the team to see if we stay focused,” Prentice said. “At this point, it seems like more of a distraction than anything for us. But it’s fun. The guys deserve it.”
Collins Hill has a talent-loaded roster of prospects that would make some colleges jealous, led by forward Malcolm Miller (signed with Michigan), defender Nick Lane (Georgia Southern), forward Peter Kurowski (UNC Greensboro) and defender Brady O’Brien (Mercer). The nucleus of seniors has led the Eagles to two straight appearances in the Class AAAAA championship, with them winning it all last year.
“The (national ranking) is well deserved,” said North Gwinnett coach Erik Crawford, who dropped a 2-1 decision to Collins Hill last Friday.
“They have a good talent pool, and they cut guys that would probably make most other high school teams. They have some good leadership and I think it has finally come together over the last couple of years.”
Collins Hill had high expectations for this year, but nothing prepared the team for the opener against Dacula on Feb. 23. Reserve goalie Jackson Taylor chipped a bone in his foot during pre-game drills and was sidelined for a month.
About 15 minutes into first half, junior defender Josh Fancher suffered a life-threatening injury from a medical condition he was born with but hadn’t shown any previous symptoms. Fancher suddenly dropped to one knee after the ball went out of bounds.
“I thought maybe he had turned an ankle,” recalled Prentice. “He was walking off the field fine, and then started stumbling and zig-zagging as he got to me. As it turned out, he couldn’t see. He had blacked out.”
Fancher was rushed to the ER, where his heartbeat was clocked at 220 times per minute, more than twice the normal level for an active teenager. A cardiologist examination revealed WWP, which is when there is an extra electrical pathway in the heart.
“I feel very blessed because it was found now, rather than much later in life, when my body might not have handled it as well,” Fancher said.
Fancher has continued playing while taking heart medications, and will undergo a five-hour procedure to correct the abnormality on Monday. He is expected to be out for a week.
Back to the Dacula game: In the second half, goalie Bill Langford switched directions to block a shot and landed awkwardly on his leg, breaking it. He is likely out for the season.
With its top two goalies out of service, Prentice went to school the next day and convinced valedictorian candidate Greg Kyle to return to the team. He had played the previous three years, but decided not to play as a senior. With Kyle in front of the net, Collins Hill has remained undefeated and nationally known.
“Everyone around school is excited about the No. 1 ranking,” senior captain Jonathan Nelson said. “People who even aren’t really into soccer have become interested. We want to keep winning and keep them interested.”
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