HS GSOC: Inspired Seahawks earn another shot at Trojans in Lower State final

The path back to the Lower State final for Kit Seelbach and the Hilton Head High girls soccer team couldn’t have been more daunting. Three road playoff games in five days. More than 850 miles traveled round-trip. 

Three wins. That’s all that matters.

The Seahawks are back in the SCHSL Class 4A final four for the second straight year, and in even more impressive fashion than in 2021. After sneaking in as the No. 4 seed out of Region 7-4A, Seelbach’s squad will meet a familiar foe — and look to avenge last year’s 4-1 Lower State defeat and two more in the regular season — when the Seahawks travel to face the James Island Trojans on Tuesday.

“These girls are absolutely bringing it,” Seelbach said. “They just do not quit.” 

When she took over the program two seasons ago, Seelbach knew she had some large shoes to fill. She was tasked with following a legend — Ernie Suozzi — who built a dynasty on the island over the previous decade by winning four consecutive state titles.  But the new Seahawk coach had the fuel from day one to mold her own success for a storied program.

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After the 2020 season was cut short, Seelbach and the Seahawks committed themselves to making the most of their first full season back. They found their way into a condensed playoff field and never let up, rattling off two wins on the road over Aiken and Myrtle Beach. But what they did a year later was even more remarkable.

Star goal-scorer and team leader Abbie Lainhart was gone, forcing Seelbach to re-energize a thin and inexperienced offense against a region loaded with talent. There was no telling whether this team would even make the playoffs after a 2-4 region start, but the Seahawks weren’t going to lay down and call it quits. 

Instead, Seelbach made some key adjustments and grew her girls into warriors who would battle for all 80 minutes. She strengthened the back line by moving top goalscorer Andrea Tapia to the defensive side. It was a challenging decision, but Seelbach noticed that her skill and leadership would be invaluable to the group down the stretch. Tapia’s strong play elevated the rest of the defense, including sophomores Mia Castaldi and Ashlyn Fleming. 

After a disappointing 4-0 home loss to Lucy Beckham in which the wheels looked to be coming off, the Seahawks won three straight, including a pair of shutout victories and a shocking 4-1 upset win at rival Bluffton. They were humbled again with a hard-fought defeat at James Island but came back two days later with a huge penalty-kick win over May River to help cement their spot in the 4A playoffs.

“We struggled in the beginning to find a balance,” Seelbach said. “We’ve been able to build out of the back, and every single training these girls are challenging one another to clean up their play and be there for each other.”

The road to a Lower State final as a No. 4 seed comes with no favors. Three road games in five days, all during the madness and stress of end-of-year AP and IB testing. It would take a whole new level of stamina, perseverance, and grit from a team finally starting to find its stride.

Seelbach challenged her girls to play a strong and cohesive 80 minutes of soccer, and the Seahawks answered at every step of the way. They stunned North Augusta 6-2 on the road Tuesday to open the postseason and knocked off Region 6-4A champion West Florence 2-1 just two days later. 

The goalkeeper is the great equalizer many times in soccer and can be the difference in a deep playoff run. A couple of huge saves can completely swing the momentum of a match and become the catalyst for an upset win. The Seahawks couldn’t have asked much more from senior goalie Amanda Magnin. Her superior leadership has rubbed off on all of her teammates, and she raises her game in the biggest of moments. 

On Saturday night, Magnin denied a penalty kick which became the difference to send the Seahawks back to the Lower State final in a 4-3 triumph over the Hornets. The road warriors from Hilton Head Island had done it again. 

After falling short to James Island five times over the last two years, the opportunity will be in front of Seelbach’s group Tuesday to flip the script, and unseat the defending state champions. But to set up potentially yet another showdown with Eastside in the finale on Friday, the Seahawks will need to buy in to each other, execute their gameplan, and give something extra on every pass and every loose ball. On Tuesday night, the slate is wiped clean. It’s a chance to ascend back to the top of the state’s soccer scene, and the Seahawks will be ready.

“They are just like us,” Seelbach said. “I believe the difference will be our will to win. Nobody has had the path that we have had.  And this is the second year that they’ve had to pull from within themselves besides their skill and their training. They have got to have the intrinsic motivation to get there and be present. If they are present tomorrow and they follow the plan we went over, I think they are going to finish with a positive result and be very successful.”

By Wes Kerr / Photos by MB Lyons

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