Every team enters a season believing this could be their year.
For many, that is an unrealistic dream.
But for teams like the Frisco Independence girls, there were plenty of reasons to back up their lofty aspirations.
The Knights endured some expected growing pains since becoming a varsity program in 2015, but they have made a steady ascent during that time.
A year ago, Independence not only made the playoffs for the first time, they announced their postseason presence by advancing all the way to the Class 5A Region 2 championship game, falling to eventual state champion Highland Park in a tight 2-1 match.
With a stout returning corps, the next step in the progression was the pursuit of a trip to the state tournament, and possibly, a championship.
The Knights were positioned to make just such a run when the entire country came to a screeching halt after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the suspension, and later the cancellation of the remainder of the season.
It was a tough end for every team, but especially ones like Independence, who had spent the previous three months preparing for their moment.
The journey had started back in December, as the Knights took advantage of a new University Interscholastic League rule that allowed teams to scrimmage prior to the start of the Winter Break.
Not one to shy away from competition, Independence scheduled local powerhouse Allen, which was coming off a trip to the Class 6A state tournament a year ago.
It was not the score that was the most important detail of the night, but rather how the team left the field.
“We want to play top-level competition because that is what we see in our district every night. We didn’t play as well as we would have liked, but we got that out of the way,” said Independence head coach Geoff Ajdukovich, who has led the program since its inception. “But we also got it in our heads to stop chasing the ghost of last year and to focus on this year’s team. There is a lot of pressure and we had to learn to manage that.”
Though the Knights had graduated some key players, they were still loaded with talent.
Senior Landry Corbett was coming off a season in which she was voted the 9-5A most valuable player. She was joined up front by all-district senior Ashley Merrill, one of the most dynamic scorers in the area.
Senior Blythe Obar is a versatile player that can have an impact at every position on the field and the defense was stout with junior Avery Brandt and senior Bella Woliver, who Ajdukovich called the team’s “glue” player.
Senior Abby Sutherland, junior McKenzie Neeley, sophomores Stephanie Farias and Samantha Jones and freshman Ainslie Hutchinson would all also go on to earn all-district recognition this season.
The potential was there, Independence just had to realize it.
The Knights shook off a season-opening loss to traditional Class 6A powerhouse Coppell with a string of victories and carried that momentum over into the start of district play.
Though not wanting to live in the shadow of last year’s team, they also wanted to channel what they had learned to make them successful.
“Every year is so different and you lose kids and the presence they bring, so it is a process to let that next group of leaders emerge,” Ajdukovich said. “Chemistry is huge and these girls were outstanding; they believed in each other and they believed in the coaches. They knew they had done it before, but they also knew how tough this district is and that they had to be ready every night.”
The Knights were winning and they were winning often as they maintained their perch atop the 9-5A roost, but Ajdukovich still felt they could be better.
Whatever the missing ingredient was, he believes his team found it just at the right time.
“We were a solid team this year, from goalkeeper through the back line to the midfield to up front, we had a lot of balance on our team. But we hadn’t been rolling the way we wanted scoring goals,” Adjukovich said. “The final week before Spring Break, we really started to click. You didn’t necessarily see it in the scores, but we were playing really well and I felt like we were ready to get rolling.”
The Knights’ peaking was happening at the perfect time with the playoffs fast approaching, but they would not take the pitch again this season.
Perhaps the best season in school history came to an abrupt halt on Mar. 12 when the UIL announced its suspension of all high school sports.
Many believed it to be a temporary stoppage.
After all, this was not unprecedented, as in 2009, the UIL postponed athletics for 12 days due to the outbreak of the swine flu.
Sports returned after the postponement on May 11 of that year and all spring sports were able to complete their seasons.
It soon became clear that this was a different situation and after growing fears continued to mount on a daily basis, the UIL finally made the call on Apr. 17 that the 2019-2020 high school athletics year was over.
It was a heartbreaking end for the team, and especially the seniors, but Ajdukovich reminded them to keep their perspective in tough times.
“When they started calling off the college and professional sports, I expected the plug to be pulled pretty quick, but I give a lot of credit to the UIL and to Frisco ISD that they kept hope alive as long as they could and were willing to fight hard for the kids,” he said. “There are bigger things in life and this was a reality check that while this was tough for us, a lot of people have it so much worse.”
Independence will always wonder what might have been, but, but in time, will also realize what it accomplished.
During the last two seasons, the Knights made their first two trips to the playoffs, capturing a pair of district championships along the way, posted a 39-3-3 record and raised the bar for all future teams to follow.
“I’m going to miss them for sure, they are a fun group to coach, it was just a phenomenal two-year run,” Ajdukovich said. “Especially the seniors, but all the kids that have been varsity the last two years, they set the standard of excellence and established us as a playoff contender. It is a testament to those players’ hard work and willingness to buy into the program and to buy into each other that set the stage for how this program is supposed to be and what it means to be an Independence Knight.”