The Woodruff Girls Soccer Program is one of South Carolina’s Best, and in 2004 the Lady Wolverines Began Writing a Remarkable Tale that Continues to this Day
Part 10 of a 12-Part Series: Moments That Changed Wolverine History
By: Garrett Mitchell, Staff Writer
Woodruff High School started a soccer program in the mid-1990s and several years later founded a girls’ team, split from the co-ed squad that first saw the fledgling program off the ground.
These Lady Wolverines were hard workers. They sacrificed, spilled blood, sweat, and tears, and dreamed that someday they would be the best. Years went by, players came and went, and the reality of that dream always seemed to be just over the horizon, so close, but yet so far away.
Then, in 2002, a young and ambitious coach named Fernando Gomez was hired and told his girls that their dream was not really beyond their grasp; they just had to reach a little harder to grab hold of what they wanted. And, so they did. Two years later, in 2004, they finally broke through. The Lady Wolverines won their first region championship.
Fast forward to 2021, and they have never relinquished their title.
Is that a too-good-to-be-true fairy tale? No. This is the real-life story of the Woodruff girls’ soccer program, and one of the most incredible runs of dominance from a public-school program in state history. When you want something badly enough, you do not want to let it go when you finally have it. And so, for the last 18 years, Woodruff has held firm to their title.
Woodruff’s soccer ladies are queens of the field, and for almost two decades, none of the countless scores of challengers have been able to unseat the Lady Wolverines from their monarchal throne.
C.J. Armour, a senior captain on that first region championship team in 2004, remembers it like this.
“Fernando and (assistant) Coach (Fran) Thomas had a challenge ahead of them; coaching a team with mixed experiences,” Armour said. “Some of our team had played at elite levels, some had intermediate experience, and some had never touched a ball. So, they spent time focusing on the basics before working on more complex aspects of the game. I think they could see something was different about the group dynamic. They did a great job developing the skills of each team member, putting us in positions on the field that played to our strengths. They were tough on us, but they were tough because they held us to a higher standard, and they knew we could go further than we’d been able to go before. Knowing that we had coaches that supported us and gave us constructive criticism allowed us to learn from our mistakes and know what we were doing well. That kind of coaching allows you to come to the next game with confidence to make the right decisions on the field and bring home wins.”
And, of course, every army of warriors needs a general. Woodruff’s first was Casey Cash. Cash was one of the first players for the Lady Wolverines’ program that played club soccer outside of high school and was, frankly, a dominant force; the first of many.
Cash fired her shots at opposing keepers with the strength and precision of archers’ arrows, the protector of Woodruff’s territory, which, at the time, was the grass field in Varner Stadium. If you wanted to come away unscathed, then you would have to withstand the onslaught. Most opposing forces did not.
In 2005, Woodruff won their second region championship, this time reaching just a bit further. The Lady Wolverines fought their way to the state semifinals, where they met the vaunted Chapin Eagles in a battle for the ages.
Coach Gomez remembers that skirmish vividly.
“We were down 4-0, and then Casey Cash took over in the second half,” Gomez recalled. “We tied the game 4-4 and ended up losing 5-4 at the very end. It was heartbreaking. Amanda Tinker and Megan Sumner were young players that year and took over the team the next season in 2006. Everything just fell into place.”
Battered and bloodied, it was a dream deferred but not destroyed for the Lady Wolverines. Battles are lost in the war to achieve greatness, but that is why you keep hammering at the fortress walls with the proverbial battering ram.
Speaking of battering rams…
Anyone who ever watched Amanda Spradlin (Tinker) kick a soccer ball may have thought they saw a real-life battering ram in the form of Spradlin’s right leg.
Casey Cash might have been the Lady Wolverines’ first field general, but there were others waiting their turns in the wings: Spradlin and Megan Sumner among them, and it would be their prowess, along with Jessica Thomas, who would finally help Woodruff shatter the wall that stood between themselves and the upper-echelon of South Carolina soccer.
It helped immensely, said Spradlin, to have a leader like Coach Gomez, who believed in his athletes.
“I think (Coach Gomez) did a great job of empowering us, which gave us the confidence to take on anyone,” Spradlin said. “I think as a team, we were the tightest group of players that had come through, a family if you will, and each of us was going to fight for the other. If you have a team where every member is fighting for the other, it’s one big team that you can’t back down. But it starts from the top leaders and trickles down.”
And in 2007, the sisters in arms finally reached the top of the castle walls. The trio of Spradlin, Sumner, and Thomas led Woodruff back to the upper-state championship game for the second time in three years, this time against Walhalla, and it would be Spradlin’s late goal that finally brought down the final barrier between the Lady Wolverines and the rest of the Upstate’s elite soccer giants.
A happy ending to the journey was not quite to be, though. Facing Bishop England for the 2A state championship, long the emperors of South Carolina women’s soccer, the villainous overloads of the sport turned back the valiant Lady Wolverines’ charge 1-0 in that final game which would be Spradlin’s last.
Heartbreaking, of course, but looking back, Spradlin is proud of her team’s indominable spirit in that culminating battle, even if the Lady Wolverines did not quite take the field. So, too, were Woodruff’s legions of loyal fans who had rallied to their side along the way.
“I remember that day as if it just happened,” she said. “That was one of my favorite moments in my history as an athlete—the entire day. The school was let out early because the women’s soccer team went to state! We had a busload of people and a stadium full of Wolverine soccer fans. It was mesmerizing and truly such a great day. I think it did give us some validation because it had never been done before. All the effort we poured in wasn’t lost. Yes, we lost the game, but we made history. And that says something, especially in Woodruff. We may be a farming town full of country folk, but we will show you what a real soccer team looks like. Bring it on. That’s the way I felt for sure.”
One of the advantages of defending a heavily fortified garrison, though, is there are always determined new warriors ready to answer the call. The Lady Wolverines would return for another run against the Battling Bishops in 2008, led by an undaunted young freshman named Casey Black. Black, perhaps, and probably likely, is the greatest Lady Wolverine soccer star of them all.
The charge again was pushed back by Bishop England, this time 5-1. Still, Black scored that lone Woodruff goal. This first-half salvo reverberated throughout the stadium and announced her arrival to the rest of the state. It was an announcement that while Bishop England may have taken home the ultimate crown once again, the Lady Wolverines were not going anywhere.
“Although I was a young player, I always felt like a part of the team,” Black said. “I came to play like the rest of my team, and everything fell into place. I had seniors, juniors, and sophomores who encouraged me and pushed me to be better. I was never treated differently because I was a freshman. Looking back now, I would definitely say my older teammates slowed the moment down and were a part of helping me grow into a leader.”
Black continued, “We made it back to the championship because my team built each other up. Everyone put the work in, and it encouraged us to play better.”
Look back at the history of the Woodruff High girls’ soccer program since 2004. You will find a host of ladies who have continuously answered the call to greatness, with the drive and desire to keep the program among the best there is. Woodruff has never shied from a challenge, nor have they shirked stepping into a battle among the elite. That said Coach Gomez always made the program, and his teams, a feared adversary.
“What really helped the program was playing non-conference games against the biggest and best teams in the state,” said Gomez. “Dorman, Spartanburg, Riverside, Eastside, we played them all, and after that, we started competing in the Viking Cup. We were making the final four of the Viking Cup every year and even took then defending 4A state champion Wando to the final seconds.”
The heroes are nearly too many to name. Names like Cash, Tinker, Sumner, Thomas, and Black will forever be immortalized in their rightful place of greatness, respected and feared by those who faced them.
One of Gomez’s former players and protégées, Paige Roper (Fowler), has carried on that tradition even further and is now the Lady Wolverines’ head coach. Roper took over the program two years following Gomez’s departure in 2017, and since the 2019 season, has continued to oversee the streak while leading Woodruff back to the upper-state title game in her first season. It was another narrow defeat, but the program has always remained undeterred.
Roper expects her teams now to uphold the same standards of toughness that she was taught to follow. After all, it has worked for almost 20 years.
“As the coach of a team that has a long history of being region champions, I do expect my players to perform to the standard that so many girls before them set,” she said. “We go into every year with two goals, to win region and make it to state. Our first goal is that region title, and we don’t even think about playoffs until we have secured that title. As the coach and former player, I feel the pressure of keeping the region title. No team wants to be the first team to lose the region title in almost 20 years, so there’s never a season where we don’t feel that pressure and make that goal our first priority.”
But Gomez knows his former apprentice is up to the task.
“I am very proud of how Paige is carrying the tradition and success forward,” he added. She is doing a great job leading the program. Woodruff still has a lot of talent, and she is doing great things with them. She was my player, and as her coach, I am very proud of how she is carrying that tradition and success forward.”
For sure, it is a storied legacy to keep alive. Since 2004 Woodruff girls’ soccer has played for two state championships, five upper-state championships, and brought down scores of the state’s behemoths along the way.
Through it all, the support from Woodruff has been felt by generations of players who have kept the winning legacy alive. That support, undoubtedly, has been equally as crucial in helping the Lady Wolverines’ program retain their throne. After all, the streak of region championships is at 18 now, and the always-full stands at the Woodruff High School soccer field indeed validate the age-old euphemism that ‘it takes a village.'”
“I will tell you I’ve never played for a bigger fan base than Woodruff,” Black, who finished her career as Woodruff’s all-time scoring leader, said. “For such a small school, the support is unreal. Besides filling out the stands every game, the school support was awesome. Students and teachers wished you good luck for the game or told you good game the day after. The support at the state championship my freshman year couldn’t be beat. There had to be more Woodruff support than any other team. Anytime you have a community support a team in that way, the team’s motivation as a whole grows. The wants of the team grow, and the expectations are higher. When your community believes that a team can and will win, so does the team, and I think it was a huge factor.”
And that legacy continues to grow greater season after winning season while continuing to inspire new young players.
“It means a lot to us to continue that legacy because it’s something we look forward to every year,” said 2021 senior Carmen Pineda. “It’s our main goal every season, to represent the school well and keep up that region championship streak. With Woodruff soccer, it’s really like a family, and I feel like it’s always been like that. That bond makes it so easy for us to play together because we are all so close.”
That mindset harkens back to the very beginnings of the Woodruff program. That is something that the old warriors of Lady Wolverine soccer are still proud of.
“You always hope that you’ll leave some mark, especially when it’s something you care about as much as our team cared about Woodruff soccer,” said Armour. “I cherish the memories my teammates and I shared many years ago, and I am extremely proud to be a part of that history with them. I wish I could go back and do it 100 more times.”
Spradlin added, “I think for me, what I think the greatest part of our legacy was the fact that little girls and young women looked up to us, and we set the tone. That one day you can do this too. I think we set the bar high, and any team that wants to beat us will have to work hard, if not harder than we did, and so on and so forth. It’s a good feeling to know teams in the future will always have a bar set by us.”
So, there you have it- hope, heroes, villains, battles, bravery, heartbreak, excitement, and victory are parts of the Woodruff Wolverine Girls Soccer Teams’ history. There is no happily ever after because future teams will make their marks on in the tales of this great tradition.
This one is still being written…