BUFORD — AFTER THE FINAL PENALTY KICK of Buford’s semifinal win sailed over the crossbar, a horde of players and coaches excitedly collided to celebrate and hug one another.

A few moments later, head coach Megan Hill squatted down to speak with a reporter and meet him at eye level. Hill’s young daughter came for a visit. She locked eyes on the conversation, and Hill picked up her child off of the ground for a warm embrace.

“Are you so excited?” Hill asked while giving her daughter a kiss on the cheek. “This is unbelievable.”

Hill reached the promised land. She’s taking Buford to the state championship May 10 with hopes of giving the program its first title in history. After stops at Shiloh and Peachtree Ridge, the seasoned head coach will compete in a state title game for the first time in her high school  career.

The emotion swelled because she’s leading a Buford team that has a greater level of togetherness than any Hill has coached. She wanted it for her team, which includes nine seniors, but she also took a step in transforming Buford soccer in her fifth season. Her culture, leadership and experience has changed a program that had a backbone of playoff appearances into one with a chance to lift a trophy May 10 vs. West Forsyth.

“See the look in her eyes,” volunteer assistant coach Chelsea Watts said after the May 2 win over Walton. “She’s such an unemotional person, but she cares so deeply about these girls. This is her world.”

FIVE YEARS AGO, former Buford goalkeeper Maggie Leland went to the school bathroom during art class. She turned the corner and saw an all-too-familiar face.

Hill, then a coach at Peachtree Ridge and Leland’s former club coach at Atlanta Fire United, walked the Buford High School hallways. Leland knew the exact reason for her arrival to the school, yet Hill remained stunned and tried to dodge it.

“I’m visiting a friend for lunch,” Leland remembered being told by Hill upon greeting each other.

The fake lunch meeting’s parting gift turned out to be a contract, because Buford readied to ink Hill’s signature to paper. Former soccer coach Andrew Eager of eight years had stepped down prior to the 2020 season, and Buford — then led by former athletic director turned athletic director of facilities Tony Wolfe — wanted a leader with experience and exceptional coaching qualities.

Buford, despite posting a number of solid seasons behind Division I athletes, hadn’t had that combo in quite some time. Wolfe received a tip from a friend to pursue Hill, and the interview took place within a week.

“She embodied everything we believe in at Buford,” Wolfe said. “It became obvious she was the right fit.”

Hill, along with the two high school stops, played at Southern Mississippi and served as a graduate assistant under Jay Entlich at Columbus State.

After the thrilling May 2 win over Walton, Wolfe stood in front of the Buford soccer bench for a few moments to soak it in. He came to Hill and said, “I expected this when I hired you five years ago. I knew you had it in you.”

“He truly believed in me and my methods,” Hill said. “It’s a blessing to have that support.”

A CULTURE CHANGE became Hill’s first order of business when taking the job at Buford.

The program had elements of on-field performance and leadership qualities, yet it lacked the perfect blend. The practices were repetitive with certain drills under the previous regime.  Over a decade ago, the program didn’t match Buford athletics’ others in regard to equipment and use of facilities.

Hill piqued the interest of Buford administration when she mentioned her Monday leadership classes and character-based priorities. Hill and her staff, which included Kara Tavani and Chelsea Watts as carryovers from Peachtree Ridge and later added Colleen Foy, had work to do.

Hill reads a lot of motivational books. She attends seminars on how to become a better leader. She conducts book studies with her team — Brett Ledbetter’s What Drives Winning and The Twin Thieves: How Great Leaders Build Great Teams by Steve Jones and Lucas Jadin, to name a couple sources of inspiration. Hill also takes her team on yearly bonding trips like whitewater rafting in the Chattahoochee River.

“She is a great leader,” senior Yazzie Vargas said. “She knows how to stay focused and motivated, even in hard situations.”

Quickly, the results began to show. Buford propelled itself to the state semifinals in the 2021 season before eventually losing to Cambridge. Some were heartbroken. Others, however, saw potential for the next step.

“I had no doubt in my mind (that Hill would get the program here),” former Buford soccer star Victoria Bahr said. “I knew she was capable of it.”

The latest season had a feeling that it would culminate. Most of the team’s work goes unseen. Yet, the behind-the-scenes work is the core of Buford’s on-field success. There’s an immense level of connectivity and chemistry, which led to moments like scoring a goal in the May 2 state semifinals with less than 50 seconds left to force extra time.

Foy said the elements of building camaraderie make Hill “a dream to work for.”

“I’ve never been a part of anything like this,” Tavani said.

EACH TIME Sal Martelli, father of Sophia and Rose Martelli, sends his children off to school, he receives a wave of peace.

The Martelli kids meet with Hill, a second mother, each time they cross through the doors. She’s the most-trusted support to each member of the team — starter or last player on the bench. Hill hears things that parents might not even know, so she then relays a message for the parents to best help at home.

“She doesn’t only coach formations, but the player and the person. That’s the difference between Megan and other coaches,” Watts said. “She’s so committed to bringing up good people, and if they’re good players that’s great, too. She’s truly one-of-a-kind.”

Freshman Mara Sheppard interacts with Hill each day without a doubt that her head coach loves her. Hill puts her soccer players ahead of her own personal life at times. She stays late on game days, comes early to school each day to get everything in order and “would go to bat for us no matter what,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard first met Hill as a fifth-or-sixth grader while the young do-it-all player worked her way up Buford’s recreational soccer ranks. They first interacted with each other at a Culver’s fast food restaurant. Despite not knowing each other, Hill offered instant encouragement to Sheppard. The now-freshman knew that’s the type of coach she wanted to play for.

“We are literally all her 26 kids,” senior goalkeeper Alina Pope said.

SECONDS BEFORE the final penalty kick which beat Walton, a Buford administrator looked on and said “This is pressure.”

The same could be said when Buford hits the Duluth High School grass to face West Forsyth in the May 10 title game. But for the Wolves, it’s not. They take it in stride and take the pressure as a privilege.

Buford has full belief it will raise a trophy to the point where the players aren’t afraid to manifest it. They know they’ve got a leg up on an opponent, and that’s because Hill leads the way.

“She puts everything she has into coaching this team,” Pope said. “She knows how to work us hard and prepare for any team. The prep work she does to do that is crazy.”

Buford stands a game away from doing so. For the seniors. For program history. For Hill.

She’s hoping for one final warm embrace from her loved ones.

“If she is the driver of the bus,” Foy said. “I have no doubt in my mind she can do this.”

FEATURED PHOTO: Brian Bates Photography

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