By Rob Patrick
After consecutive 17-win seasons, reaching the State quarterfinals last year and semifinals the year before while[more] returning all but one starter, it comes as no surprise that expectations are high for the Bryant Lady Hornets soccer team this season.
Could this be the year, they take that next step to the State championship game?
Head coach Julie Long is trying to avoid that being the focus, however.
“That’s been the challenge,” she allowed. “We’ve talked a lot this year about taking it one game at a time. We need to stay focused with every single game we play. So we’re working on that. We’re trying to focus even on one day at a time in practice. We’re trying not to go through the motions. It’s trying to get better.”
They embark on that campaign to find out with a pre-season jamboree on Saturday at Bryant Stadium. They’ll play a 25-minute scrimmage against Hot Springs Lakeside at 9 a.m., return for a 25-minute scrimmage with Batesville at noon then take on Valley View for 30 minutes at 2:30 p.m.
The team officially gets started on Thursday, March 1, at Searcy.
Six seniors return for Long. They include London Abernathy, Lyndsey Brazil, Maggie Hart, Kaitlin Miller, Katie Moore and Lauren Reed. Moore was an all-State selection last year. Abernathy was named to the all-State Tournament team.
Juniors on the team are Lexie Balisterri, Katie Barrington, Ashlen Baughtman, Kaitlin Gaiser, Bailey Gartrell, Shelby Gartrell, Morgan Hawkins, and Bailey Schlesier.
The sophomore group includes Haylee Campbell, Addie Chaloupka, Taylor Matthews, Jacie McMahan, Emily Pierce, Tori Rose, Callie Schalk, Kara Taylor and Rori Whittaker.
Freshmen added to the team this year are Katelyn Giffin, Madison Hawkins, Fernanda Olvera, and Kierra Solinger.
“It’s hard,” Long said of preparations for the season. “Because they’re going into every single practice with the mentality that they’re pretty much like they were last year. That was something that I had to get an adjustment for, that we’re not our last year’s team. We don’t need to settle for being as good as we were last year. We need to push to be better than we were last year.
“That’s been the biggest battle,” she continued. “They had a pretty successful season last year and they kind of seemed okay with that. But that’s something that we’ve gotten past. We’ve knocked down that wall and now we’re just working on a lot of fine tuning stuff.”
The backbone of Long’s team has been the back row, the defenders.
“My defense has been almost the same for three years,” the coach noted. “Kaitlin Miller will start in goal for us. She’s improved tremendously. It’s gotten to where the girls are confidant with her back there. She’s confidant being back there.
“Experience makes a huge difference. These six seniors have been starting for me for six years now. Not only are they good players but now they have three years of experience as varsity players, some of them four years because they started before I got here as freshmen. It shows. They’re very mature. They have a common goal in mind and they’re working.”
Abernathy, Reed and Brazil return on the back row.
“Since they can remember, they’ve played together,” Long said. “I think that has a lot to do with it. Those three completely know each other’s style. They know exactly what they’re going to do. It’s never a question of who’s going to do what. If they had to play without talking, they could play without talking just because they know each other so well.
“I’ve said this numerous times last year that I’m just fortunate to play with three in the back and that those three — and honestly, this may be the last year that I can do it for a while — they understand it. All three of them have speed, which you have to have and I don’t even have to tell them what to do. They just do it. After telling them once or twice about how to play with three in the back, they just understand and it’s something that works.”
It helps, Long noted, to have good players in the center mid spots.
“They can drop back and fill,” she said. “That’ll be Katie Moore and Maggie Hart. Lexie Balisterri and Shelby Gartrell will both rotate in and out of there depending on who’s playing forward.”
Hart returns after missing last season with a knee injury and Long is glad to have her back.
“I said that it didn’t hurt me as much having Maggie out last year but now that I’ve had her back it hurt me a lot more than I thought it did,” she related. “Because it just allows us to do other things. So that’s been huge to get her back. And, to be honest, she looks better than she ever did before. That’s her hard work that’s done that. She’s one of the hardest workers that I’ve ever coached. She’ll do whatever I ask her to do. She rehabbed and played all fall.”
On the wings, Long mentioned Whittaker, Gaiser, Schlesier, and Hawkins. She added that Rose will get playing time everywhere but forward.
“You need at least four good wings,” she noted. “They run more than anyone else. They are up and down, up and down so you’re looking to rotate them in, which is what I want to do.
“Up top, it’s probably going to be Bailey and Shelby Gartrell,” she continued. “Emily Pierce will probably come in and get some playing time and then Lexie will play up top, as well.”
Regarding the jamboree on Saturday, Long said, “I’m just looking to kind of see where we’re at. They’re ready to play. They’ve been practicing hard for two months. Even though on Saturday, it’s not an official game, it’s still a chance to play someone else and see where we’re at.”