The Greenback School Lady Cherokees soccer team has been at work this summer preparing for the 2019 season.

Leading up to the dead period, the Lady Cherokees spent nearly two months conditioning and getting in shape.

“First and foremost, we have been doing, almost exclusively, conditioning,” Rob Fox, Greenback girls soccer coach, said. “(Monday) was literally the first day we did something besides conditioning. I think the girls are all relieved about that, but needless to say, it’s been hot. For the most part, their spirits are pretty good.”

The team consistently worked on running endurance in June, but have now shifted focus to more of the game.

“We ran a mile and trying to get our mile times down to about eight minutes, depending on what position you play,” Jenna McConnell, junior, said. “We’ve just been doing that most of the time and not doing too much ball handling skill. Now that dead period is over, we’re doing drills and scrimmaging. We’ll get our goals out now and start shooting.”

The team held its first official practice Monday afternoon. Players primarily worked on dribbling, passing and defending.

“It was a little hard,” McConnell said. “We did run the mile today. Coach wanted to see if we were keeping up with our running over the dead period, so it was a little bit hard because it was hot. Some of them weren’t used to it because they haven’t been doing much, but I think now that we’re doing drills and stuff like that, I think people are going to catch on quicker. Once we get the first couple of practices rolling this week, I think it will work out well.”

The Lady Cherokees lost three seniors from last year’s team, but returns four seniors and an experienced junior class.

Fox is encouraged with the addition of several new faces.

“We’ve got a pretty good group returning,” he said. “We’ve got four or five newcomers that I’m pretty excited to have, so the team is shaping up to look pretty solid. It’s kind of early to say, ‘Where are we in the whole grand scheme of things?’ but I feel pretty good right now.

“There’s a little bit more history with the girls,” Fox added. “They’ve been playing a little bit longer. Like a lot of programs like us that are rural, we get a lot of girls that have never played before or have played very little. We’re starting to get a little bit more of a snowball effect where we’re getting more that are coming back than are starting. We’ve got 18 girls and I think about six are brand new.”

Fox will heavily rely on upperclassmen, particularly seniors Angelita Astudillo, Cierra Chandler, Jayna Harrison and Anna Morris.

He will also look to a strong junior class that consists of McConnell, Riley Poe, Betsy Tiller and reigning All-County Player of the Year Julianne Fox.

“I’ve got 13 girls on the field that know what it’s about. I’m not having to start over again,” Fox said. “I’ve got four seniors this year and I’m excited about that. In addition to that, I’ve got a pretty solid junior class between Julianne, Jenna and Betsy. That junior class is solid. Riley Poe started for me last year and she’ll do a lot better this year.”

Last season, the Lady Cherokees finished 7-10 overall and suffered a close 1-0 loss to Polk County High School in the District 4-1A championship game.

Although the start of the season is more than a month away, Fox said this year’s team can make its third straight trip to the district title game and win.

“We hope to make it back there again,” he said. “We feel like we’ve got the team to do that. It’s early to say for sure, but my early feeling is that we’ll have a team we can get back there with. We do have one new team in the district. Sale Creek’s going to have a team this year. They’ve got a very good boys team, but I have no idea what they’re bringing in terms of girls, so that’s kind of an unknown. But for the most part, I feel like we’ve got every bit of good a team as we had last year. I think with some coaching and some work, we can be right back where we were.”

Lady Panthers back at work

The Lenoir City High School Lady Panthers soccer team also hit the practice field Monday for the first time in two weeks.

“Through the dead period, I just wanted them to take some time off because they do need to rest,” Elik Pickell, LCHS girls head soccer coach, said. “For the ones that were here for the entire month of June, I wanted them to take a couple of weeks off. You always want them to run some, run two or three times a week. You just want them to keep their endurance up a little bit because it makes this a lot easier. We’re nowhere near conditioned what you have to be. Taking two weeks, it’ll kill you.”

Pickell has been encouraged by what he has seen so far.

“We’ve got 11 freshmen, I think,” he said. “I had a good group that tried out and, unfortunately, we made some cuts because we try to keep the numbers to where it’s workable so that people are getting some field time, whether it’s JV or varsity. I’m excited about the ones that are here. We lost some people over the summer that we expected to have here, but aren’t. I’m excited about the girls that want to play for Lenoir City and want to represent their school.”

One of the first issues Pickell noticed since taking over the program three years ago was overall team speed.

“They’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said. “We’re still significantly behind Farragut, Maryville and Hardin Valley from a skills standpoint, but as I told the girls, ‘We may not be as skilled as those teams, but we can work as hard or harder than they do and be competitive.’ The biggest thing is they’ve each got to work on their own, not just from the time we have out here. One of the things we’ve worked on is team speed.”

He believes players have improved their speed and is excited about this year’s freshman class.

“I told the players, ‘You could have two players that have the same skill level, same height, same knowledge of the game, same experience, but the girl that’s faster than the other one is usually going to win those battles,’” Pickell said. “Speed is one of the big things. We’ve got some girls this year, especially some freshmen, that can run. They can really run. Now, the soccer part of that is different, but they can really run.”

The Lady Panthers lost several key players from last year’s team that finished 5-10-2, but return veterans Sydnie Cziep, Chloe Hill, Emily Lowe and Maddie Williams.

“Sydnie’s back and she’s our leading scorer, and we have Emily Lowe,” Pickell said. “They’re our leaders offensively, I would say. Maddie, of course, our goalkeeper ... she’s probably the best goalkeeper in the district. She’s going to be counted on, obviously, to make a lot of saves against some of those higher quality teams. Chloe Hill in the back is a good player. We’ve got some seniors that have some ability, but we need them step up and lead a little bit. They’re still kind of learning that.”

The Lady Panthers’ first action of the season will be at 6 p.m. Aug. 6 at Roane County High School for a preseason match against the Lady Yellowjackets.