TK 18 Legends went 10-0 to win 18 American at Big South in Atlanta last weekend. It was a complete turnaround for a team that hadn’t experienced much success at all this club season.
Every match was another test. Each player on the squad from Roswell, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb, carried her own weight, which freed the team up to excel.
“Even after they got to the finals and knew they had the bid, they refused to give in,” club director and head coach Suzanne Fitzgerald said. “It was about finishing the test.”
TK played Open at Bluegrass early in March and placed 33rd out of 36 teams. The team tried USA at the Florida National Qualifier and went 2-5, tying for 15th place out of 33 teams. TK tried USA again at Beast of the Southeast and tied for 37th out of 44 teams.
These results were par for the course for this team, which consisted of players other clubs and other teams passed over. Victories were few and far between whenever they played.
“We finished so low in regionals that there was no chance of us getting a reallocation bid,” Fitzgerald explained.
TK had one final qualifier to play in. It was seeded 17th playing in the American division this past weekend at Big South, hoping that it could best the 69-team field and make it to Junior Nationals.
“We had this last chance, and we had to be perfect,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald is a very successful high school and club coach who started TK in the summer of 2018. Just a few months before, she led Walton HS of Marietta, Georgia, to state and national titles and was named National Coach of the Year by two publications.
But all was not well. The former Marine was searching for her identity, including as a coach.
Fitzgerald is tough and she coaches that way. She also believes in accountability. At all times. Today’s youth, and their parents, made her afraid to be who she was. She stopped being so tough, fearful of players protesting or quitting or parents complaining. Her teams suffered as a result.
On the Monday before Big South, after her team lost again to TK’s top 17s in a scrimmage, Fitzgerald broke down. She told her team her fears. They all talked.
The next night at practice, she went back to who she was as a coach, with the team’s permission. She planned an “activity,” a series of tests that would prove physically and mentally challenging for every player on her roster. The idea was for everyone to carry their own weight; to take ownership when there was a problem and look inward, not outward.
The tests were rigorous, the runs in between – sometimes while having to carry weight — tested the mettle of every player. It was harder than hard. The players held each other accountable. No one quit.
“I am so incredibly grateful for this group of girls,” Fitzgerald said. “This team helped heal me.”
They came into the tourney with same determination they showed during Tuesday’s activity.
“It was never about winning but about execution,” Fitzgerald said.
Each match became like the test. They knew they could do the test, so they could also do the match.
“There was a quiet determination that they were going to get it done,” Fitzgerald said. “They were so calm and workmanlike all weekend.”
One win became two. Two wins turned into three and the top of the pool. The team executed, held each other accountable, worked as one and victories ensued.
In the semifinals, one win from clinching a bid, TK got crushed, 25-7, in Game 1 versus OTVA 18 O Emily. There would be no quit in these underdogs.
“We used the concept of the activity to fuel us through the entire weekend,” Fitzgerald said.
TK won Game 2, 27-25, then pulled away in the third. Taylor Esmie, a natural outside playing middle out of necessity, got the team to point 14 in the third. Marigny Risey, a lefty RS and Esmie’s longtime friend, got the 15th point. Just five days before, they’d been “real” with one another during the activity. Now, here they were, carrying their own weight and carrying TK to the bid.
On Tuesday, all 12 players — Esmie, Risey, Nicole Brooks, Brooke Butler, Brooke Bini, Olivia Burrage, Kelli Kaiser, Mia Niklas, Hannah Speeney, Mary Grace Delfino, Madison Logan and Riese Johnson — made it through the activity together. They used what they learned about themselves and their teammates to do the unexpected on the weekend: go undefeated and win a national qualifier.
The entire team hadn’t just finished the test; they’d passed it with flying colors.