By Rob Patrick
So, the Bryant Lady Hornets soccer team won 17 games, went 9-5 in conference play, won two[more] games at State and reached the semifinals — a game away from the title match — before losing to the eventual champion in 2010.
No doubt, it’ll be hard to top that in 2011 but, with just about everybody back from that 2010 team, not only are hopes high, so are expectations as the new season gets underway with a benefit match against Little Rock Christian, the defending Class 5A State champions, on Thursday, Feb. 24, at Bryant Stadium.
Lady Hornets head coach Julie Long acknowledged that the high expectations provide some pressure on the team.
“The girls know,” she mentioned, “but I don’t think they’re counting their chickens before they’re hatched. They’re staying pretty focused and they know they have a lot to do before that big time comes.
“They’re still working and that’s something we’ve really focused on, to not be satisfied with our success last year, to keep pushing to get better,” she added. “Last year at this time, they knew they were going to be good but we went to a tournament up in Bentonville and got killed. We won one game up there. That re-focused them. That kind of showed them. It was like now they know their competition and they know they still have a lot of things to do to get better. Even from that last game we played at State last year, they still know they have a lot to do to get better.”
Members of the team include London Abernathy, McKenzie Adams, Lexie Balisterri, Ashlen Baughtman, Lyndsay Brazil, Taylor Bryant, Kristin Cartwright, Addie Chaloupka, Kaitlin Gaiser, Bailey Gartrell, Shelby Gartrell, Sarenity Gomez, Maggie Hart, Tarra Hendricks, Madison Land, Taylor Matthews, Jacie McMahan, Kaitlyn Miller, Katie Moore, Grace Oxley, Emily Pierce, Lauren Reed, Victoria Rose, Callie Schalk, Erica Selig, Kara Taylor, Dylan Vail and Rori Whittaker.
Gomez, Hendricks, Selig and Vail are the seniors on the team.
Like last year, unfortunately, the Lady Hornets absorbed a blow before the season even began. In 2010, they lost senior all-State performer Haley Montgomery for the season with a knee injury. And, recently, returning starter Maggie Hart, a team leader as a junior, suffered a season-ending knee injury.
“We were scrimmaging the guys and she was defending one of the boys and she just cut,” Long recalled. “As soon as she cut, her whole knee — she went down screaming — and I knew, that’s the classic ACL grab injury. I even know the ACL preventions. It’s frustrating.
“Maggie’s stayed so positive,” she noted. “She’s been out there every single day with these girls even still. And the girls expect her out there. She’s still going to have a huge impact on this team. Every one of these girls look up to her, even the seniors look up to her and how she’s played, especially the way she was playing even from this fall. She was playing better than I ever saw her play last season.
“But the girls have decided that they’re playing for Maggie this year, like they did last year with Haley,” Long mentioned.
Hendricks and Moore, who were both named all-State performers last season, lead the returning contingent.
Miller returns as goalkeeper after a season in which the Lady Hornets shut out 12 opponents. Long’s three-player back line returns, Sarenity Gomez, London Abernathy and Lindsay Brazil. Hart was set for one of the center mid positions, but now it’s, Moore and Balisterri along with Reed, Bailey Gartrell and Vail stepping in at times. Reed and Vail will play on the wing when they’re not in the middle along with Rose, Whittaker, Baughtman and Gaiser. Adams, along with Abernathy, will be returning to the team after basketball and figures to be in the mix at midfield and forward. Hendricks, Shelby Gartrell and Bryant are slated to start at forward with help from Land.
“Tarra, Taylor and Shelby are looking good right now,” Long stated.
The 2010 season kind of came together for the Lady Hornets after Long revamped the team’s formation. With the team’s experience and depth, she’s made a new adjustment for 2011.
“We played a 3-5-2 at the end of last season and I’ve had some gut-checking lately and we went to a 3-4-3 this year,” she related. “It’s actually a step up on the offensive side. We’re going to try it early on and see if we’re ready. I think the girls can handle it. I’ve pushed them really hard to get them to understand exactly how they’re going to have to play in the 3-4-3. It’s going to take a full commitment from every one of them on the field. If one lets down, we lose our shape, we lose our formation, everything. So they know what I’m expecting. And the good thing this year is we have a lot of depth so they can go hard as long as they can then I can get them out for two minutes and get somebody in, get a kind of rotation system going this year with them.
“Something that will be different about this year is, you’re going to see a lot of girls playing a lot more, getting more playing time, because I’m pushing them to go a lot harder when we’re playing the 3-4-3. What that means is you’re playing with your three defenders, four midfielders and three forwards. Last year, when we ended the season, we were playing a 3-5-2 the whole time. So you’re basically taking one out of that midfield that’s helping out on the defensive side and putting them on top. So my forwards, I’m expecting a lot of pressure from them. They know that and they know how to pressure.
“I think it’s starting to come together,” she added. “It’s going to take a lot of hustle from that middle group and luckily that’s where we have the most depth on the team. I have seven or eight girls that I feel confident can come in and play a midfield position at any point. So that helps.”
The 7A/6A-Central Conference will once again be very competitive, Long acknowledged.
“Conway’s going to be our biggest competition in our conference,” she said. “Our conference is so tight anyway. We hardly play anybody that’s a free game for us. There’s really not one.
“Last year, Central was one of our biggest competitors but they lost everybody but two players. That’s going to be like seeing a whole new team so I don’t really know how they’re going to compare with us. They’ll reload. Every season they have a good group come in. They’re still going to be a good team.
“Cabot got new coaches this year so they’re going to be a group to look out for,” Long added. “I know that they know what they’re doing. North Little Rock’s girls got a new coach this year too so that’ll be a new style to learn about. And Mount (St. Mary Academy) is always one of the top teams in our conference.
“A lot of stuff changed in our conference last year so that first round is going to be a situation where we’ll know we have to go out and play every game to our highest potential.”