Lady Panthers excited for season to start

Lenoir City High School sophomore Gabriella Rodriguez dribbles down the field during practice.

The Lenoir City High School Lady Panthers soccer team is back in full force and giving all it has in practice to prepare for its season opener in less than a week.

“It’s been pretty good and it was kind of funny the first day because they hadn’t had any contact in so long that it was like wrecking balls going at each other,” Chris Pickell, LCHS head girls soccer coach, said. “It’s been fine, but we still haven’t done a ton of contact, but it’s been fine.”

“Practice has definitely been a lot more fun being able to scrimmage and play with each other, like contact-wise,” Sydnie Cziep, LCHS senior, added. “It will be interesting to see how we perform on the field, for sure.”

The Lady Panthers have not had been able to hold any contact practices this summer until Aug. 3, which is why the team has started slow in its progression.

“We started doing some small-sided things, just working on 1-on-1 defense,” Pickell said. “We’ll probably scrimmage a little more actually, more of like an 8-on-8 situation because really even in a normal year, you don’t scrimmage every day for more than an hour or 30 minutes. You build up to it and then you have a scrimmage at the end, so it’s just been small-sided stuff.”

Gov. Bill Lee signed Executive Order No. 55 on July 31 to allow contact sports such as football and girls soccer to resume contact practices.

Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association Board of Control agreed with the decision and will allow the fall season to start as originally scheduled with specific health guidelines in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve contacted some of our first few week opponents, not getting too far ahead of myself, but everybody’s still, to my knowledge, ready to go,” Pickell said. “I’ve had a few that have contacted me that we’re going to their place and we’re all still good to go, so I think we’ll be OK. I guess Knox County’s pushed their school year back, but I think they’re proceeding on time with their athletics. We play Farragut right off the bat.”

The Lady Panthers are coming off a 10-8-1 season that yielded a District 4-3A semifinal appearance, and Pickell expects another challenging season.

“The district’s the same as it always is because you’re going to have Maryville and Hardin Valley that will probably be the two best teams, and they don’t usually lose a whole lot every year,” Pickell said. “Farragut has a new coach, so I don’t know exactly what to think for them. Of course, Heritage and William Blount are still going to be good. Heritage still has Kaitlin Burger, who is one of the best forwards in our league. William Blount’s going to be good.”

Pickell believes the Lady Panthers can finish in the top four of District 4-3A this season.

“We’ll be battling, and our goal is to host a district game, which means we would finish top four,” he said. “We actually finished tied for fourth last year and with the tiebreaker, we ended up going to Heritage. If we can host a game, that would be a big accomplishment. It’s been a long time since we’ve hosted a game here for the district tournament. It’d be great if we could knock one of those three teams.”

The Lady Panthers will be led the senior trio of Cziep, Haley Webster and Emily Lowe. Cziep, a 2018 All-District 4-3A selection, is expected to be one of the team’s top scorers again.

“Goals are to beat Loudon and to perform our best,” Cziep said. “Our expectations are to be better than last year, for sure. I would say this year we’re probably a lot more connected, a lot more put together. I would say our skill set has leveled out as far as like everyone being on the same level.”

Pickell will also rely on several underclassmen to contribute big minutes this season.

“We need Kimberly Huichapa to step up, but she was kind of hurt a bit last year with a knee, so I’m hoping she can step up and see what she can do,” he said. “Obviously, our freshmen from last year ... we started five or six freshmen last year, and they’re sophomores now so they’ve got to step it up. We just need everybody to step up, and they’ve all got some experience. We lost Maddie (Williams), Chloe (Hill) and some of those seniors, but a lot of the girls due to injury last year got to play.”

The Lady Panthers open up the season at 7 p.m. Aug. 18 at Farragut High School.