The powerhouses of athletics come in all shapes and sizes.
At the International School of Atlanta, which competes at the Class A-private level, there is no giant stadium to accommodate dozens and dozens of football players. The most prominent athletic ground, in an attractive setting in the Garden Hills area of Buckhead, is a football pitch.
Soccer is Atlanta International School’s flagship sport, and the men’s team is one of the state’s stories so far, undefeated in the first seven games of the season with five wins and two draws. . Victories came against Marist, Midtown and Riverwood, strong programs of much higher ratings. And one of the draws came 3-3 at Dalton, a national powerhouse that competes in Class 6A.
It’s an early-season list that would be daunting for any Mono-A school, but AIS head coach Jonn Warde is looking for the toughest competition he can schedule.
“What I try to do at the start of the season, you try to research a lot of bigger schools,” Warde said. “These are the types of teams we want to play against.”
Both AIS football programs have enjoyed success for years (the women’s team tied their best national result with a semi-final appearance last spring). The men’s team won their first and only state title in 2015 under former coach Danny Cox. But Warde has a particularly explosive roster of players this season that is the No. 1 consensus 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 had their final season canceled due to Covid-19. “We felt like this team had a good chance of making it to the state championship,” Warde said. And last spring, AIS lost the state title match in heartbreaking fashion to regional rival Wesleyan on penalties. The Eagles beat Wesleyan 4-0 in the regular season but found themselves down two in the final after two red cards.
“It was definitely a motivation for us at the start of this season,” Warde said. “We have this memory burning in our minds and hearts. So it’s definitely fuel for us to finish the job. As we tell the boys here, ‘unfinished business’.
What Warde brings to his job is a wealth of experience at many different levels of the sport. Originally from Barbados, Warde developed as a player with the Barbados national youth teams and appeared in several games for his country at senior level while also playing for Monroe College in the state of New York. Warde transferred to Oglethorpe University to finish his college career and has been an integral part of the Atlanta coaching scene for years. In addition to his duties with AIS, he also coaches elite women’s teams with the Concorde Fire program, where many of his AIS players also play (the GHSA has a rule prohibiting football coaches from coaching players at the level of high school and club).
“I live by the ‘connect before fix’ mantra,” Warde said. “One of the things I like to do as a coach is to put myself in their shoes as well.”
In addition to a strong core of players from the AIS supply program, the Eagles have also benefited from several recent newcomers. One of them is Mateo Bargagna, who is joining the AIS college program for his final year after playing with the Atlanta United Academy teams. Bargagna is one of several AIS college players who grew up in MLS team Atlanta’s academy. But rather than compete at the U-19 level for Atlanta United this coming season, he decided to play his senior year of high school football at the school he has attended since freshman year.
“A lot of us have played together at local clubs before, so obviously we have that chemistry,” Bargagna said. “We’ve all been friends ever since. [many years]. So we know each other very well and already have a good team bond.
Bargagna, a striker, combines well with forwards Noah Kristensen and Leo Zaller in the AIS attack, and led the Eagles with six goals in seven games. He is currently committed to Tufts University, and Warde reckons nearly all of his current juniors and seniors will play at some college level, which would be no small feat for a one-A school.
The team’s junior captain, Wesley Bruner, loves testing against high competition.
“We have to go out and show them that we’re not a 1A school,” he said one night when his team dispatched the 6A class to Riverwood, 4-2. “We can play with the big boys.”
Josh Grand, captain of the senior team, joined the program ahead of his freshman year after living in the Netherlands for three years and getting a taste of the 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 of the team this year, we’re not going to lose this year,” Grand said. “We have the players. And we know what it’s like to lose, and we don’t want to do it again.”