The Varsity soccer team at Atlanta International School. (Louie Chiappetta)

Athletics powerhouses come in all shapes and sizes.

At Atlanta International School, which competes at the Class A-Private level, there’s no giant field house to accommodate dozens and dozens of football players. The most prominent athletics field, in an attractive setting in the Garden Hills neighborhood of Buckhead, is a soccer pitch.

Soccer is the marquee sport at Atlanta International School, and the boys team is one of the stories of the state so far, going undefeated through the first seven games of the season with five wins and two draws. The wins have come against the likes of Marist, Midtown and Riverwood, strong programs from much larger classifications. And one of the draws came 3-3 at Dalton, a national powerhouse that competes in Class 6A.

It’s an early-season slate that would be daunting for any single-A school, but AIS head coach Jonn Warde seeks out the most challenging competition he can schedule.

“What I try to do early on in the season, you try to look for a lot of bigger schools,” Warde said. “Those are the types of teams we want to play against.”

AIS head coach Jonn Warde. (Louie Chiappetta)

Both soccer programs at AIS have been successful for years (the girls team tied its best-ever state finish with a semifinals appearance last spring). The boys team won its first and only state title in 2015 under previous coach Danny Cox. But Warde has an especially explosive group of players this season that is the consensus No. 1 in the state for Class A-Private. And the Eagles are playing with extra fire this spring after bitter disappointments in 2020 and 2021.

The 2020 team had 14 seniors who saw their final season canceled due to Covid-19. “We felt like that team had a good chance to make a run for the state championship,” Warde said. And last spring, AIS lost the state-title match in gut-wrenching fashion to region rival Wesleyan, on penalties. The Eagles had defeated Wesleyan 4-0 in the regular season but found themselves at a two-man disadvantage in the final after two red cards.

“That definitely was motivation for us going into this season,” Warde said. “We have that burning memory in our minds and hearts. So that definitely is fuel for us to finish the job. As we say to the boys here, ‘Job not done.’”

What Warde brings to his job is a wealth of experience at many different levels of the sport. A native of Barbados, Warde developed as a player with the Barbados youth national teams and competed in several matches for his country at the senior level while he was also playing for Monroe College in New York state. Warde transferred to Oglethorpe University to finish his college career and has been a fixture in the Atlanta coaching scene for years. In addition to his duties with AIS, he also coaches elite girls teams with the Concorde Fire program, where many of his AIS players also play (the GHSA has a rule prohibiting soccer coaches from coaching players at both the high school and club levels).

“I live by the mantra ‘connection before correction,’” Warde said. “One of the things I like to do as a coach is put myself in their shoes as well.”

(Louie Chiappetta)

Along with a solid core of players who came up through the AIS feeder program, the Eagles have also benefited from several recent newcomers. One of those is Mateo Bargagna, who joins the AIS varsity program for his senior year after playing with the Atlanta United Academy teams. Bargagna is one of several AIS varsity players who have developed in the academy of Atlanta’s MLS team. But rather than compete at the U-19 level for Atlanta United this upcoming season, he decided to play his final year of high school soccer at the school he has attended since first grade.

“A lot of us have played together before at local clubs, so obviously we have that chemistry,” Bargagna said. “We’ve all been friends for [many years]. So we know each other really well and have a good team bond already.”

Bargagna, a striker, combines well with forwards Noah Kristensen and Leo Zaller in the AIS attack, and was leading the Eagles with six goals through seven games. He is currently committed to Tufts University, and Warde estimates nearly all of his current juniors and seniors will play at some level of college, which would be no small feat for a single-A school.

The team’s junior captain, Wesley Bruner, loves the tests against top competition.

“We’ve got to go out and show them that we’re not some 1A school,” he said on a night that his team dispatched Class 6A Riverwood, 4-2. “We can play with the big boys.”

Josh Grand, a senior team captain, joined the program before his junior year after living in the Netherlands for three years and getting a taste of that country’s intense youth-development culture. Grand was sidelined for last year’s playoffs after undergoing ACL surgery, relegated to watching the heartbreaking final loss from the sidelines. He, along with his teammates, says it’s “championship or bust” this spring.

“I think there’s the whole mentality for this year’s team of, we’re not going to lose this year,” Grand said. “We have the players. And we know what it feels like to lose, and we don’t want to do that again.”

Alex Ewalt

Alex Ewalt is a freelance writer in Atlanta.