By Jeff Keeling
The 2016 version of Science Hill girls soccer posed plenty of questions for second-year head coach David Strickland this summer. With 13 seniors having departed from a 2015 team that advanced to substate, Strickland said of his young team in July, “we’re still trying to figure each other out.”
So far, so good for the most part, Strickland said Tuesday as the team readied to start a week of training and a break from games after a grueling stretch that culminated in a 1-0 home loss to Jefferson County Thursday. The team is 4-0 in conference, with its biggest remaining test a home match against Tennessee High Sept. 27, and the girls have faced a lot of talented competition in the season’s early stages.
Compared with last season’s senior-laden team, which had a clear star player in striker Hannah Torbett, Strickland said this year’s squad features, “more of a group identity and I think we play better as a team this year.
“The inner vibe of this group is great. It’s a great group of girls, and there’s a lot of people who work for each other and they like each other.”
If the team has a leader, it’s senior midfielder Devin Fry, who’s been limited by a hip flexor injury and played just 40 minutes total as the team has gone 5-4 overall.
“Devin adds us a different dynamic of a player,” Strickland said. “She is a very good advanced player, very mobile, technically very good. It just increases the ability on the field. It makes us a more attacking team.”
It is in the attack that Strickland believes Science Hill can continue to improve, potentially making a run at a state tournament berth despite some strong competition to the west in Bearden, Maryville and Oak Ridge. Maryville, which eliminated last year’s team at Science Hill in substate, beat the ‘Toppers 2-0 at Bearden’s pre-season tournament, and Oak Ridge defeated them 3-1 last week.
Strickland said his young team has the tools to beat either of those squads if they meet again.
“We’ve scored some goals. The thing that we’re doing is creating some opportunities. I’d be worried if we weren’t. It’s just sharpening the final product. Some of it is teaching players to be more relaxed, calm and focused around the goal instead of hurried and panicked.”
Thursday night served as a testament to that assessment. The midfield of Fry, sophomore s Gracie Duncan and Summit Dann and junior Emma Hecht kept the ball under control and created opportunities for themselves and for strikers Riley Cox, a sophomore, senior Kenna Harris and sub Rachel Killian, a junior.
“It’s one of those games where they had maybe three shots, they scored one, and we had maybe 20 and didn’t get anywhere close,” Strickland said. “They all recognized it. Nobody was pleased, but the point being made was it’s better to have this now in the season than that it could be a season ending game.”
Thursday, Strickland said his back four did a good job of protecting the turf in front of junior keeper Tess Mrozek, whom he called “a very good goalkeeper.” On the back line this year in the team’s 4-4-2 set are Annemarie Massey at left outside back and junior Rebecca Killian at right outside.
Junior Abby Knox, who played an outside back position last year, has moved into the middle with senior Haiden Motte, who missed last season with an injury. Knox, Strickland said, “has been absolutely phenomenal this year.”
In addition to Rachel Killian, other subs logging significant minutes include senior midfielder Emily Fabel and freshman Alexa Musk, whom Strickland called, “the kind of player we can utilize in the back or the midfield.”
With plenty of underclass talent already on the field this season and an extremely promising JV squad, Strickland said the future looks very bright for Science Hill soccer – but he’s not looking too far ahead.
Science Hill hosts a tournament the weekend of Sept. 16-17 and will play an Elizabethton team that’s having a highly successful season at 6 p.m. the first night. There’s the Tennessee High clash coming up, and Science Hill is the host school for the conference tournament in mid-October.
Jefferson County appears the team to beat in the region’s other district, and Strickland believes if the ‘Toppers take care of business they should qualify for substate, which he would consider the mark of a very successful season.
“We need to grow and continue play as 11,” Strickland concluded. “The outlook for the future is very good, but I think we can make a little bit of noise this year with this group.”