There are just two girls soccer teams statewide that enter the regular season's final week without a loss on their resume.
One is Pulaski Academy (12-0-2), which tested its mettle against a brutal nonconference slate but has since capitalized on relatively light 4A-East competition.
The other is Fayetteville, and the Lady Bulldogs haven't had an easy road to 13-0-3. They've drawn 6A-Central side Conway, beaten three-loss Siloam Springs and gone 11-0-2 against a brutally tough 6A-West schedule.
But if Fayetteville wants to cap its stellar campaign with a conference title, the Lady Bulldogs will have to keep their unbeaten season alive when they host Bentonville tonight. The visiting Lady Tigers drew Fayetteville 2-2 at the start of April, meaning a win -- which would pull them level with the Lady Bulldogs at 35 points -- would vault them into the No. 1 spot on head-to-head goal differential.
Fortunately for Fayetteville and Coach Joe Thoma, the Lady Bulldogs have locked up a first-round bye -- something that will be critical come state playoffs next week, as a No. 3-6 seed has never won four games in a row to capture a title, let alone win three consecutive to make the final.
That's not enough, though, for a team looking to win its first championship since 2010.
"I told the girls back in August or September, 'Let's embrace this,'" Thoma said. "Let's go for it. Let's not beat around the bush [and say] we hope we get there. We want to be state champs. We want to be right there. So we've talked about it all year."
Of all the things that are impressive about this veteran-heavy group, the Lady Bulldogs' plus-52 goal differential stands out.
They've shut out seven opponents in 13 conference games thus far and won 9 of their 16 games by three or more goals.
Thoma emphasized the strength of his entire defense, but it's hard to argue that senior goalkeeper Haley Woodward hasn't been the single most vital player for Fayetteville.
Woodward, a Houston signee who has previously been a varsity athlete in basketball, bowling and volleyball, gives the Lady Bulldogs a steady presence in the back. Although Thoma has often rotated his team, especially in a condensed season, they've always had their veteran netminder between the posts in the biggest of games.
And consistently, Woodward has shown why Thoma -- a former keeper himself -- calls her one of the best goalies he's ever coached.
"If a defender makes a mistake or a girl makes a good move ... we know Haley's got our backs back there," Thoma said. "We don't have to do anything crazy, so we're not jumping in and giving away fouls or anything like that."
VAN BUREN BOYS
Fayetteville is certainly not the only team in the state with a crucial week ahead.
Van Buren has a chance to avenge its lone conference loss tonight when it hosts Russellville, and the Pointers can guarantee themselves the top seed out of 5A-West with wins against both the Cyclones and Siloam Springs on Friday night.
No doubt, there were adjustments to be made by Coach Nathan Almond as Van Buren faced several opponents for the first time ever.
But since that Russellville defeat April 15, the Pointers have outscored their opponents 27-3.
"The biggest challenge [has been] not knowing what to expect," Almond said. "We're just having to go in somewhat blind the first time through the rotation and the second time it's a little easier -- you know what's coming."
Almond's been able to make adjustments because he's got as experienced a group as there possibly can be. While Van Buren (16-1-1, 11-1) didn't get to play last spring -- along with the rest of the state due to covid-19 -- the Pointers had three freshman starters on their 2019 team that made the second round of state playoffs.
They're now juniors on a team made up entirely of upperclassmen, with five seniors and 13 juniors.
Junior forward Pedro Rodriguez leads Van Buren with 22 goals.
But there's plenty of depth that makes the Pointers dangerous. Almond's son Kylan, Fernando Romero and Isaac Ochoa were key pieces two years ago and in the last three games, Van Buren has had three different players log a hat trick.
On the year, the Pointers have 13 players with at least two goals.
"When you look at that [6A-West] conference we were in, I think that played a major role in preparing us," Almond said. "My leading scorer in 2019 had 42 goals -- we don't have anything close to that. ... It's hard to point to one or two. It's really balanced and teams have a difficult time taking away something from us."
6A BOYS AND GIRLS
What's the scenario?
Although there are some potential conference tournaments statewide, the Class 6A regular season will determine who makes the playoffs.
On the girls side, Bryant clinched the Central's No. 1 seed with a 2-1 win against Conway on Monday night, meaning the Lady Wampus Cats cannot catch North Little Rock for the No. 2 seed. Mount St. Mary, Fort Smith Northside and Central will round out the Nos. 4-6 spots respectively.
Fayetteville can clinch the 6A-West title with a win or tie tonight. Rogers Heritage can secure the last spot into the playoffs with a win or a Springdale loss tonight.
In 6A-Central boys action, Conway locked down a conference title by winning at Bryant on Monday, and the Hornets can slip into the No. 6 spot with a win or tie Friday against North Little Rock.
And in the 6A-West, Springdale can win the conference title with a victory over Rogers tonight. Springdale Har-Ber can secure a bye with a win against Bentonville West or a Bentonville loss or tie.