Young doesn’t have to mean rebuilding.
With a roster filled with freshmen and sophomores, and a scoring attack fueled by underclassmen, the Smith-Cotton girls soccer team is off to a 5-1 start — before play began in the Kickapoo Shootout — and 4-1 in conference play and has not conceded a goal since April 1 while outscoring opponents 35-2 this year.
“We’ve been doing really good lately,” said freshman striker Jessica Coble. “We’ve been working hard in practice and trying to get better.”
Coble has been at the forefront of the attack along with fellow freshman Brianna Pollitt and sophomore Jill Vansell. The trio have accounted for 25 of the Lady Tigers’ goals this season with Coble scoring 10 in the last three games alone.
“I think that what she’s doing right now is really helping us,” Pollitt said. “She’s going to improve, but I think that she’s doing really well. She’s really quick. There’s not very many girls out there as quick as her. Once she has the ball and she’s going down the field, there’s really no one who can stop her.”
Pollitt and Coble have been playing together since they were 7.
“We don’t really have to talk to each other,” Pollitt said. “I know where she’s going to be and she knows where I’m going to be.”
Those two and the rest of the freshman class have fit right in with the Lady Tigers varsity team.
“They have continuity together, they’ve played together,” said coach Adam Murray. “They understand what the others are going to do on the field. They’re comfortable with each other and that helps with the overall team atmosphere.”
That continuity gave Smith-Cotton a built-in team chemistry as the six freshmen and nine sophomores on the roster immediately stepped in to contribute.
“They’ve been impressive from the start,” Murray said. “They come in with a good mentality. They’ve worked hard. I think they’ve done a good job coming in and earning positions, doing what we’ve asked of them. They put themselves in good position with their work rate in practice. I’ve been very impressed with them and proud of them.”
Pollitt said there were some nerves on the first day of practice but seeing so many familiar faces, even in a new setting, set her at ease.
“I’ve been playing with most of these girls since I was in third or fourth grade,” she said. “I know all of them. I fit right in.”
Murray said the seniors and juniors have blended in well with their younger teammates.
“We’ve got some upperclassmen who have already had success in the program,” Murray said. “They’ve done a good job of welcoming in kids throughout the program. They’ve all just gelled together as a group.”
A year ago, then-coach Shawn Cairer switched the Lady Tigers from a sweeper-stopper defensive system to a flat-back-four. Those changes had to be put on hold midseason after a rash of injuries to the Smith-Cotton back line. Now Murray has returned to the flat-back-four and has gotten results with it.
In its first six games, Smith-Cotton allowed a total of two goals, both in a 2-1 loss to St. Pius X. Since then, keeper Lydia Sharp has recorded four consecutive shutouts. The Lady Tigers have even stifled scoring chances. In a 9-0 win over Center on Wednesday, the Yellowjackets attempted just two shots on goal.
“Their shape’s getting better and they’ve done a better job of communicating and keeping people out,” Murray said. “They’re playing smart and playing together and playing hard.”
Murray is rotating players through on defense, with sophomores Peyton Sharp, Sarah Garcia and Maddy Harding, freshmen Olivia Greer and Kiara Williams and senior Maddy Hendricks seeing playing time at the back.
“They’ve all done a good job,” Murray said. “We’ve given them all opportunities and they’ve all responded well. I think they all can go in and do positive things and be successful.”
With so many underclassmen, the Lady Tigers seem poised to be a powerful team for the next several years.
“We’re just going to keep improving,” Pollitt said. “Most of us are freshmen and sophomores. We still have two or three years to improve. I think we’re going to be pretty good.”