BUFORD – IN THE SWELTERING HUMIDITY wafting atop 100 yards of turf, Buford goalkeeper Alina Pope stood in front of the net. Her home. Her zen. She doesn’t allow much to pass her, but her teammates lined up for the last segment of practice — penalty kicks. 

Twelve yards from Pope, the taker took her spot. The keeper locked in, but the neon yellow-and-black sphere rang through the net’s left corner beyond Pope’s reach. For a few seconds, Pope remained on her side and her dark blue gloves flung skyward as she rolled onto her back.

“Bruh!” Pope screamed, angry with herself that she gave up a goal in the penalty kick simulation. 

Her teammates, though, become a little amped up when they see one go through in practice reps. They’re only able to score because they know Pope’s tendencies, but also know the difficulty of succeeding. 

“She’s so hard on herself,” said fellow senior Abby Kilman, committed to Georgia State as a midfielder. “On the other hand, we’ve gotten so good at them because we’ve been competing with her.”

Pope, a senior, team captain and the 18-year-old who handles her goalkeeping as if she were a professional according to many accounts, is meticulous in her approach. She has conceded two goals for Buford (17-0-1) through 18 games and has become one of the biggest factors in the team’s playoff run, which continues April 23 vs. Milton. 

At times, Pope has made it look easy since playing recreational soccer as an 8-year-old up until now. A significant part of her journey, however, has been far from. She has set a path to becoming the goalkeeper of the year in region 8-7A and potentially leading her team toward playing for the first-ever state title in team history. 

“In my 27 years of coaching, she’d be in the top two-or-three goalkeepers I’ve ever coached,” said Larry Rodrigues, Pope’s former club coach at All-In Futbol Club Sugar Hill. “That includes one who won national championships in college and another on the Puerto Rican national team. The girl is definitely gifted.”

Courtesy of Alina Pope

THE JOURNEY BEGAN after an important figure in Pope’s life never wanted it to. Her mother, Viola Pope, saw it as a boys’ sport. Her father, Craig Pope, showed support and remembered his daughter excelling at all of the boys’ sports – football, baseball and soccer – while playing on the sunny south Florida beaches in Fort Lauderdale. Alina remembers kicking a soccer ball over the fence and juggling them with her uncle of Italian descent.

Alina played her first organized soccer as a 7-year-old with a recreational club, Holiday Park. She got the chance to play with her lifelong friend Parker Merrick and pounced at the opportunity. 

“All of the kids were running around and kicking the ball like a group of fish,” Craig said. 

Little did they know at the time, that’s when Alina’s competitive spirit began to emerge. She and Merrick were eventually put on different teams. Alina would go throughout the school day at Bayview Elementary and brag about her team’s undefeated season (much like the one Buford finds itself in now). 

Alina showed immense commitment at the time, which makes Merrick chuckle years later. 

“To her, it was like a professional league,” Merrick said. 

Alina got her first critique when she was an 8-year-old on a rec team. A coach told her to put her body in front of the ball and not reach with her hands, she said. She works on that aspect of her game even 10 years later by Alina and Craig doing backyard reps based on the work of professional goalkeepers.

While in the recreational leagues, however, she got her first test of a major save. She succeeded, against her friend Merrick, no less. It didn’t, however, come without some pain. 

“I accidentally hit her in the face,” Merrick said. “It ended up blocking my shot.”

Courtesy of Alina Pope

AHEAD OF HER TRYOUT with All-In Futbol Club, Rodrigues warmed up Pope in front of goal. She made plenty of impressive saves in which she “dove in the air and landed like a cat,” Rodrigues said. All the then-assistant coach needed was 10 minutes to report to his superior. 

“If you don’t take this girl now,” Rodrigues said. “You’re a fool.”

Later, at a tournament in Florida, Pope warmed up again. The shots were hitting. The saves were even better. An Auburn scout started to come over and ask some questions. At the time, Craig Pope started to have schools send emails and text messages to keep them in mind as she developed.

“She could play Division I soccer anywhere,” Rodrigues said.

AS AN INCOMING FRESHMAN at Buford, Pope had players ahead of her. She expected to play at the junior varsity level as a first-year player. Suddenly, head coach Megan Hill pulled her out of yoga class.

“You’re on varsity now,” Pope remembered Hill telling her. 

Then-starting goalkeeper Kennadie Marchand suffered a hip injury after she split duties with Pope, Now, all of the responsibilities rest on the freshman’s shoulders. 

“Her confidence level was so low,” Hill said in reference to her first appearances with the team. “She was trying to find her niche and the right group of kids. She started to play and only got better and better.”

As a sophomore, Pope split time with Marchand. Then, the elder goalkeeper suffered another injury and Pope took over in the postseason of her second year. The unthinkable followed. 

Courtesy of Alina Pope

A SIMPLE SOCCER GAME of “Over the River” took place in the preseason of Pope’s junior year after two games. The game, which occurs in practice, is positional and can bring out switching the point of attack, playing out of pressure, penetrating passes and enhancing defensive principles. 

Pope, running toward a ball, fell. She didn’t get hit or tackled, but instead suffered a non-contact injury.

“Alina,” Hill said on the field, not thinking anything serious happened in the moment. “Get up!”

She did. Pope walked to the training room without crying or showing any emotion. She, Hill nor anyone else on the team thought anything was wrong. A few hours later, they got the news that her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) was torn. Pope, to her disbelief, even went for a second opinion which became confirmation. 

“It was the weirdest thing,” Hill said. “It happened so randomly.”

The inevitable was that Pope wouldn’t be able to play college soccer, however, because she didn’t hold a commitment entering her junior season of club soccer. She said she would’ve eventually played for Atlanta Fire United or Elite Club National League if not for the injury. Hill said she “doesn’t get the credit she deserves,” due to the setback and believed she could’ve played at numerous programs. 

A matter of days later, a 50-week recovery process began for Pope. She underwent surgery by Dr. Kyle Hammond, the team physician for the Atlanta Hawks, with Emory Healthcare. Her teammates supported her in every step. Ella Attway and the rest of the Buford soccer team came to her house, took her mind off of the pain and delivered her favorite Polish chocolates. 

After surgery, Pope never stopped working. She joined forces with Dom Shannon at the Atlanta Rehabilitation and Performance Center. She went everyday, and Craig Pope said “she did it as if she were a professional.”

“I knew I had to push myself to get back as fast as I could,” Pope said.

A few months later, Attaway saw it pay off. They returned from a trip to south Georgia to visit Attway’s grandparents. They tried to cool off from a hot day, and Pope did something unexpected.

“She ran in the pool for the first time since her surgery,” Attaway said. “That made me beyond happy.”

Courtesy of Alina Pope

TWO DAYS AFTER having her ACL reconstructed, Pope returned to the Buford High School turf fields. She was ready to support her team after practice. 

Pope didn’t allow a goal through three playoff games as a sophomore, but lost on a penalty-kick shootout against Chattahoochee. She wanted every chance to redeem herself, but a dream deferred. 

Hill eventually found Pope behind the goalpost and mentoring then-freshman goalkeeper Natalie Dihn.

“She could’ve easily torn her ACL, taken a hard left, and not been part of the team,” Hill said. “Instead, she’s out here coaching. A special person.”

 She didn’t miss another practice or game throughout the rest of the season. There were plenty of people within the Buford community who urged her on, cried with her and awaited her return. 

Those in-tune with the sport knew what it meant. The player who once had college interest would miss a full season of club soccer, and therefore her Division I soccer aspirations were likely tabled. Pope always saw it as an “option” if she wanted it, she said, but academics and life goals came first.

Above all else, her teammates mattered more

“It’s so sad sometimes,” Attaway said. “How can you imagine being as supportive as she was?”

POPE HAD TO DEFEND a 1-on-1 opportunity in her senior season against Blessed Trinity. The attacker came charging at her, and Pope had to react. She soared into the air and swatted the ball away from the net’s upper-right corner. 

Pope has made a handful of impressive saves given that Buford has only allowed two on the season, but this specific attempt had a special shine to it. 

“It felt like slow motion,” Attaway said. “She literally flew in the air.”

Pope deflected the praise and laughed. She’s the type who doesn’t obsess over her successful saves, but she doesn’t forget any element of her misses. In the first allowed goal of the season at Mill Creek, the ball was played back to her and she held it too long. The forward pressured her and snuck it through the back of the net. Against North Paulding, in the regular-season finale, Pope got beat on a header and believes she could’ve snagged it out of the air on the corner.

“I learn from them and never do it again,” Pope said.

She’s analytical in her approach to saves. She’s got a photographic memory when it comes to opponents scoring on her. Pope follows the likes of Barcelona’s ter Stegen and the former national team star Hope Solo, and mimics their on-field approach. 

It’s an art. She knows her weaknesses after working at the high-school level and with Rodrigues, who said she makes saves that “he’d never expect anyone to get.” Pope knows she struggles at times with distribution, angles and penalty kicks at times.

Rather than becoming alarming factors, she uses them to drive toward her ultimate goal.

“Your job is to keep the ball out of the back of the net,” Pope said. “You don’t want anything there. I know that when I’m close to saving a ball, everyone says ‘Oh you were so close.’ It doesn’t matter because it went through the back of the net.

EVERYTHING BRINGS COMPETITION to Pope. That includes test scores. Her former pre-calculus teacher, Tyler Ann Smith, coaches the recent state championship-winning state championship gymnastics team. She sets up her classroom as if it is a practice session and prioritizes teamwork.

Smith’s students had healthy-but-frequent competitions to see who could notch the highest test score. Pope, with a 4.9 GPA, had an expected result.

“She was among the tops everyday,” Smith said. 

Pope finished her high-school academic career with seven Advanced Placement classes. She plans to enroll at the University of Tennessee and major in psychology and explore the option to either walk-on to the soccer team or play with the acclaimed women’s soccer club team. She gained inspiration to study the field after taking psychology classes with Leah Curtright and finishing a healthcare science pathway under the leadership of Bryan Rogers.

Rogers gave Pope a writing prompt about sports psychology as a junior. She had no idea that sports psychologists existed or what it entailed. After conducting research on the career, it became her passion to help athletes with their mental well-being. 

“I want to help the athletes who went through what I did (with the ACL injury),” Pope said. “I know how hard it is.”

Pope has had a passion for academics ever since she was a child. She wasn’t pressed by her parents to make a certain grade, but it came naturally and she enjoys making an A. Her father said Pope is “blessed” with her academic talents. 

“She is a testament to AAA excellence,” Smith said. “She adopted it full-fold. At any point, injuries can happen to athletes and they need something equally fulfilling. She took it and ran with it.”

Courtesy of Alina Pope

THE BUFORD GIRLS’ SOCCER TEAM  trauma bonded. Before their sophomore season, Hill took them on a whitewater rafting trip on the Chattahoochee River. It didn’t go to plan, either, as they all fell off of the boat. Attaway fell into a whirlpool and a group of kayakers had to save her.

“I did not like that at all,” Pope said and Attaway echoed.

The venture, however, speaks to the team’s bond and connectedness which especially shows itself in Pope’s senior season. As a captain of the team and one of the most well-regarded players, she’s the leader of Buford’s push to make program history. 

Put away the two goals allowed on the season. Put away the on-field success. Even put away the flashy saves. Buford won’t ever remember Pope for that. Instead, she has left an ever-lasting legacy for everything else. 

“She’s an overall fantastic person who cares about others,” Hill said. “She always wants what is best for everyone else but herself. She’s super selfless and would do anything for anybody.”

Buford’s goalkeeper doesn’t want to have a single regret.

“I want people to know that I put in everything I could to try and win state,” Pope said “We’ve been trying for so long, and I’ve done everything to help us achieve that goal. Hopefully we will.

Pope doesn’t like to see kicks hit the back of the net. Most of all, she doesn’t like letting her team down.

“Each day is a countdown (to the season ending), and by the end, I’ll probably be bawling my eyes out,” Craig Pope said. “My girl’s heart is beautiful. Nobody would tell you differently.”

FEATURED PHOTO: Courtesy of Lee Heard

Please follow and like us:
Pin Share

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Verified by ExactMetrics