Rachael Larsen was named to the Daily Citizen-News' all-area team following her sophomore and junior seasons at Coahulla Creek High School. But that wasn't enough for her. She wanted more.
Larsen's drive to improve led her to use the time leading up to her senior season to challenge herself even further.
"For those two weeks before soccer season started I was going up to the (Dalton) Recreational Fields fields every day," Larsen said. "I'm one of the few girls who goes up there to play, it's usually just boys. I go all the time. There are always players from Dalton, Southeast, Northwest, all the teams from around here. We just play."
Larsen jumped in pick-up games and said playing with the boys was one of the reasons her skills improved over the past year. The higher level of competition paid off for Larsen who led all local girls with 24 goals this spring while leading Coahulla Creek back to the state playoffs for the first time since her freshman year.
For her efforts, Larsen has been named the 2019 Daily Citizen-News Girls Soccer Player of the Year.
"I was surprised when I found out because there are a lot of good girls around here who I play travel ball with who all had great seasons," Larsen said. "I knew we were all in the running for it, so yeah, I was surprised. I guess all this hard work paid off."
Larsen was a four-year starter for Coahulla Creek and according to coach Shannon Coley the improvement shown by Larsen over those four years was self evident. Coley also coached Larsen on the school's cross country team, and said he never had to worry about whether his standout striker would be in shape once soccer season rolled around.
"When she was young she already had the speed which was natural, and the last few years she was able to develop skill-wise to get better," Coley said. "Her first year she could kick the ball way out in front of everybody and just outrun them. But she's learned to have a better control of the ball. She's also become a lot better at relying on her teammates, and learning when to pick her spots."
For the past three years Larsen has played with The Belles, a local girls youth soccer club in the Northwest Soccer Academy. John-Eric Bulger is the founder and director of soccer at Northwest Soccer Academy and echoed Coley's assessment of Larsen's improvement. Even while playing alongside other local talented players at the club level, Bulger said Larsen's focus to improve stood out.
"Perfectionist is probably too strong of a word, but she is the type of person who obviously cares about the quality of her work. I don't think there's any downside to that with her," Bulger said. "If you were gonna start with an athlete you probably want to start with a lot of those qualities before anything else."
In terms of her improvement during her time with the Belles, Bulger focused on three aspects of Larsen's game.
"In soccer, improvement is very abstract a lot of the times. Players play for an entire game and may only have the ball for a minute or two," Bulger said. "Her ability to control the ball is better now, and she has better ideas in terms of playing with the players around her. She has improved her defensive work as well, in terms of her willingness to get back defensively. Rachel is a hard worker. There's no drama, no baggage. I would expect her to be very successful is whatever she does."
Larsen set a few goals for herself during her high school career. One was to play college soccer, which she will accomplish this fall when she begins her time at Limestone College, a Division II school in Gaffney, South Carolina. Before her senior year she set another goal for herself -- reach 60 career goals at Coahulla Creek. After scoring 38 goals through her first three seasons, the goal was lofty, but she said she knew it was attainable as well.
Larsen's total of 24 goals this season gave her 62 career goals, which places second all-time for the Coahulla Creek girls soccer program. Regina Pacheco, who graduated in 2015, still holds the top spot with 90 career goals scored.
Larsen said being a student at Coahulla Creek this year, she noticed the increased attention soccer was gaining around the school. With the boys team finishing as Class 3A runners-up and the girls team making the playoffs, the uptick in soccer interest in the halls was real according to Larsen. Now as the school's first-ever player of the year, Larsen hopes both programs can continue their recent success and push for even higher goals.
"Soccer isn't normally a big deal at the school, but I think it is now. It's been awesome," Larsen said. "It's great to see people come out to watch us play and really get our name on the board for soccer as a program. I think our 2019 class of seniors had a really strong group of players for both the boys and girls.
"We know we can make it to state now, because we've done it before. I think a lot of the younger girls didn't know what to expect in the playoffs. We can try to tell younger players what it will be like but you never really understand until you see it. I think now that both our boys and girls teams have experienced it and seen how players from the Atlanta area play, they can prepare next year for it."