File photo by Rick Nation
New Bryant Lady Hornets head soccer coach James Paul is fully aware of the immense success of the program under his predecessor Julie Long. But as the 2017 season begins with an alumni game on Saturday at 11 a.m., and the official season opener against Benton on Tuesday, Feb. 28, fast approaching, he’s ready and his team is ready to get started.
“It’s been a long eight weeks,” he said of preseason practicee. “I’d say even four months because I started with the girls, a lot of them last fall with their club teams, going to see them play, going to help them practice if they play for the club team here, trying to get in early because they didn’t know me very well.
“We’re ready to play,” Paul acknowledged. “There have been a few transitional bumps but nothing too crazy. I’m excited to see how we go. While Coach Long and I have a little different philosophy and way we coach, I think it’s still going to be good. We lost a lot of good seniors last year, a lot of good players have come through here the last few years and it’s only made it an opportunity for these younger girls to step up and be those people. And I think they can.
“I’ve got a lot of expectation,” he related. “I’ve got some pretty large shoes to fill. Coach Long really did a good job. But I’m excited to really see it happen. I think it’s come along really well. We’ve made great strides. Our team is fairly young but athletic so I’m excited to see them develop and mature as a good, quality, well-thought-out team. Our athleticism is there but we’ve got to come together. And I think we are. We’re coming together pretty nicely.”
Actually, with respect to all the strong teams on their schedule, the Lady Hornets may not face a sterner test all season than the alumni team will provide with many of those former Bryant players on hand who had so much success.
Asked what he wants to see from his team on Saturday and during the busy first week of the schedule, Paul said, “I want to feel good about the things we’ve been working on the last couple of months. It always feels good in practice. We have our bumps. We have our off days but it feels right and the way we’re going feels good as far as development.
“As for how we can compete in the tough conference that we’re in, everybody’s got Bryant as the team to beat so we’ve got to show up every week. It’s just time to see it. I think we’re ready to just go out and compete.”
The Lady Hornets will be led by a quartet of seniors though Paul says there’s been a lot of competition for playing time.
“It’s pretty spread out, honestly,” he noted. “The expected, Caroline Campbell, last year’s Gatorade Player of the Year, she’s back for one more year. Some starters, Sarah Kennedy, she’s a leader. A couple of other senior leaders are Ashley Sparks and Natalie Pierce. Those are our four seniors. You could say they’re our core. Other than that, we’re young.”
The team also includes juniors Jasmine Sauers, Hannah Fort, Katheryn Vivar, Jad’n Nichols, Jessica Butler and Brittney Warner.
The sophomores on the team are Ceclia Morales, Chelsey Alarcon, Stefany Roman, Alyssa Fason, Abbie Patton, Rachel Studdard, Sierra Edelmann, Madison Humbard, M.C. Selig and Ashlyn Thompson.
Freshmen joining the team include Maggie Murray, Isabel Longnecker, Ashton Long, Maddie Stukenborg, Alexis Brown, Brooke Stevens, Kinley Oholendt, Elaine Qualls, Hailee Denton, Lauren Heath and Grace Carmack.
Paul was reluctant to mention names and starting spots.
“There is a changing roster (of starters) daily for me,” he explained. “But it’s coming together and I think I’ve got a solid one and two depth chart.”
When pressed, the coach said, “I’m excited to see how Rachel Studdard and Alyssa Fason do in the back. They’re very fast, very athletic and very dynamic in what they can do. I’m excited to see them really take on a leadership role and take control of their position.
“Coming up through the middle, there’s Maddie Humbard and M.C. Selig, who is that girl that brings the team together. She can really motivate the girls. She’s really vocal and keeps everybody together. I’m excited to see them control the middle of the field.
“We’ve got a couple of younger ones that you’ll see a lot, Lauren Heath and Brooke Stevens,” he continued. “They’re freshmen that — if they don’t start — will come in really fast because they’re athletic, really fast and they’re deceptive. They’re beyond their years in ability. I’m excited to see them play a lot.”
Asked about his philosophy as a coach, Paul related, “I like to control the middle of the field, hold possession. If we’ve got the ball, we can’t get scored on. I think my m.o. is to hopefully hold the ball the whole time, hold possession as long as we can, and defend as a team, attack as a team. There’s not any one player that’s going to be solely responsible for any one thing. We all, as soon as we lose the ball up top, our forwards are our first defenders. We’re a team in every way.
“Everybody’s got to be able to do everything,” he added. “We’ve got to transition well. We’ve got to be fast through the middle and stretch the field on offense and get compact on defense. If you can’t do all of those, you’re probably aren’t going to start. You may not play a lot. You may fill some holes for breaks if people need breaks because I do expect them to run and don’t hold back at all. That’s good because we have a little bit of depth. We have some people coming off the bench that are very close to starting quality. We don’t lose anything by subbing in and out, I don’t think.”
Paul is originally from Jacksonville where he played high school football as a kicker and served as a captain on the soccer team.
“I played anywhere they needed me, filling in holes,” he said of his soccer career. “I went to college at UCA and played football there. But I played for Little Rock Futbol Club, now Arkansas United, my entire childhood, teenage years and a little bit into my 20’s. So, I’ve been a soccer player my entire life. I’ve seen it all. I feel really good about my knowledge of the game and my experience with it.
“Something that people may not know about me, I came to Bryant as a Film Production teacher,” the coach mentioned. “So, a lot of people were kind of shocked when I applied for the soccer job and then actually got it. It’s definitely a new challenge. It’s a fresh challenge because anywhere I’ve been before, I’ve been an athlete turned something else. Now I’m the teacher turned coach. It’s a little bit opposite of what it’s been in the past.”
He’s been a head soccer coach at Pulaski Robinson and Jacksonville and helped out at North Pulaski while serving as an assistant football coach.