CONYERS — Not even Gracie Wilson knew 42 goals in a single season was obtainable.
Entering her final season at Heritage with 45 career goals, climbing up the leaderboard was the furthest thing from the senior’s mind. Fresh off a signed scholarship to South Alabama prior to the start of the season, Wilson’s thoughts were on enjoying her final months in a Patriots uniform.
“It’s just something that never crosses your mind,” Wilson said. “When you’re at zero goals at the beginning of the season, you never think that you’re able to score 42 in a single season.”
What she didn’t know, however, was that with each passing game a number of that magnitude was conceivable.
For 22 games, Wilson laid siege to anyone and anything not donning a Patriots uniform. Scoring in 16 different games for the Patriots, Wilson’s run at the history books was realized.
By the end of the season, Wilson capped her monumental run with 42 goals, nearly doubling her three previous season totals in 2016, 2017 and 2018 combined. Of Wilson’s 42, the senior scored three or more goals nine different times.
Wilson’s 42 goals ended Rachel Holmes’ 16-year record, who previously scored 37 in 2003. Her five goals in one game against Luella landed her in a tie for first all-time with Courtney Foster and Melissa Drish. As for her 87 career goals, it was enough to slide her into second all-time, trailing only Foster’s 99.
“My senior year has been the most fun, the most successful, just everything,” Wilson said. “Everything about it has honestly been the best. I did not expect, especially as a freshman, to be where I’m at now. It’s something that you hope to do, but never think that it’s something you’re able to reach. You don’t realize that you’re close to certain goals until you are.”
If not for a position change in 2019, Wilson’s 42 goals, very likely, would not have happened. Spending her junior season as a winger, Wilson slid into her more natural attacking midfield position, where she very quickly reaped the benefits.
“Honestly, the difference between this year and last was my position,” Wilson said. “Winger is not really a scoring position. It can be, but it’s also defensive. So this year when I was the sole attacking midfielder, it made it a lot easier to hang out up top and be more involved in the attack. And with the team that I had behind me, I didn’t have to come back nearly as much as I did in previous years.”
Through Wilson’s first nine games of the season, she had 14 goals, putting her on pace to score 34. The next five games for Wilson saw her score 15 times, including two hat tricks against Evans and Alcovy and two four-goal performances against Alcovy and Grovetown.
With 29 goals in her first 14 games, Wilson didn’t let her foot off the gas. Her final 13 goals were scored against Luella (5), Rockdale County (1), Bradwell Institute (4) and Valdosta (3) while her and the Patriots rumbled to a Region 3-AAAAAA championship and a trip to the Final Four.
“I will say that this year, I put in so much more work than I did the other years,” Wilson said. “Not that I didn’t work hard those other years, but especially going to college, I was doing things outside of practice, after practice. Just doing everything that I could. That definitely played a role in how successful I was this season.”
As difficult a challenge as Wilson posed to opposing teams, six were successful in keeping her from scoring. Three of those teams were unable to shut her down completely, however. Three of Wilson’s seven assists on the season came in games that she failed to score.
“That showed in a couple of games,” Wilson said. “The one that sticks out in my mind was the Greenbrier game to secure the region championship. I did not score in that game and my teammates did everything. I love the girls scoring just as much as I love scoring. It’s a team effort and without goals, you don’t win. No matter who is scoring, it doesn’t matter as long as the ball gets in the net.”
The leadership role Wilson possessed was another key factor in the ultimate success of the team. In all, 17 of the Patriots’ 22 games resulted in victories, setting a new school record. The Patriots’ previous single-season record of 16 wins was set twice in 2012 and 2001.
“I’ve always been a player that’s had a big voice,” Wilson said. “I like the leadership role. Losing our two other captains from last season and being a senior this year, I knew that there were going to be more responsiblities this year. It’s something that I enjoy doing and I knew that the girls on the team looked up to me. So I knew it was important that I helped them with whatever they needed and also kept my head on straight so that I was a good role model for them.”
10 of the Patriots’ 17 wins came in region play. Rarely facing a challenge, the Patriots ended their 10-game region slate without losing. In that stretch, Wilson scored 21 times.
It wasn’t until a 6-1 blowout victory over Lakeside to open region play that Wilson began to realize the full potential of the season.
“When I saw Lakeside on the schedule as our first region game, I was really scared,” Wilson said. “They were the best team last year. I was like, ‘man, we’re just getting started. Why are we playing Lakeside? Why can’t we play an easier team?’ But we came out on top 6-1 in that game and that really blew my mind.”
I told myself that with that result, we can do anything this season. That was kind of the point that I thought we could do something. I didn’t expect to go 10-0 in the region, so that was awesome.”
Their 6-1 result was the start of what turned out to be a 14-game streak without a loss, one that included 13 straight wins and a tie against Union Grove.
All-in-all, Wilson said she still has a hard time putting into words the season both she and the team were able to have.
“It’s still crazy,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t feel real that we went to the Final Four. The support that I got from the school and my teammates and everyone has been awesome. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them, so I hope they got everything out of it that I did. It wasn’t about me, it was just about playing soccer.”
With the Patriots’ season ending with a loss to the eventual state champion Dacula Falcons in the Final Four, Wilson has already turned her attention to college, where she will suit up for the Jaguars next spring. Just days after graduating this past May, Wilson set sail for Mobile, Alabama to get a jumpstart on her next journey.
“They offered me to come down during the summer and work with the strength coach,” Wilson said. “I’ll be playing with a WPSL team, a semi-pro team to train with them, as well as taking a couple of classes. All of that is paid for, so of course I took advantage of that opportunity when they offered it to me.”
While Wilson admitted that she will miss lacing up her cleats for Heritage, she can’t wait to start her next journey, one that she hopes will end with a very similar success rate.
“I am very excited,” Wilson said. “Just because I know that the girls that I’m going to get to play with and the coaches will push me just like my high school coaches did. I’m very excited to see how much I improve because I know it will be more elite. I know I have a lot to improve on, so I think college will help me improve on those things. I’m ready to see how much more well rounded I’m able to be just by playing at the next level.”