After starting the season with two losses, the Lenoir City High School Lady Panthers bounced back to win three consecutive matches behind the play of several talented underclassmen.
The Lady Panthers’ run began Aug. 25 with a 8-0 dominant win over cross-county rival Loudon High School, followed by a 4-0 win against Cleveland High School on Aug. 27.
Despite losing nine players to injury or COVID-19 tracing protocols, head coach Chris Pickell was surprised with the number of sophomores and freshmen that have stepped up.
“Lots of players contributed substantial time to give some starters a rest as we were short four varsity players,” he said. “Ashley Nolazco, Jewelie Webb, Poppy Lowery and Karen Valasquez provided good minutes and energy when called upon. I had to move Sydnie (Cziep) back to play center back for probably about 75 percent of the (Loudon) game. They responded well. Cleveland was just a total team effort, and I was just really happy. The defense stood up when they needed to.”
Sophomore Layla Brogdon netted a hat trick against Cleveland, while sophomore Gabriella Rodriguez added the final goal.
“We started off not the best at the beginning because we weren’t communicating well and our passes weren’t as accurate as they should’ve been,” Brogdon said. “In the second half, we really picked it up and worked together as a team, especially in the middle. I feel like we did really good.”
“The first two games weren’t as good because I felt like we just wanted to dribble and not pass,” Rodriguez added. “Then against Cleveland, we played and just connected on passes so good. We looked more up top, and I feel like we weren’t playing as selfish. Instead of trying to score goals, we were trying to get assists and that’s when we really got a game plan.”
Rodriguez has been one of the most improved players on the team.
“I didn’t do anything last year other than kick and run, but now I feel like I’ve gotten a little more technical,” she said. “I can shoot a lot better and I’ve definitely learned like how to pass better.”
Lenoir City won a third consecutive match Sept. 1 with a 2-1 victory over Knoxville Halls High School. Freshman Poppy Lowery scored a goal in the first half, while freshman Kyrah Beal sealed the match with a penalty kick in the second half.
“Again, a solid game again given we were missing seven varsity players,” Pickell said. “Lots of young players contributed solid minutes. Sydney Cziep, once again, slid into center back from her attacking position to help shut down the Halls attack, showing her versatility and doing what was best for the team to get the win. Layla Brogdon and Gabby Rodriguez had another good attacking game and kept the pressure on the Halls defense.”
The streak came to an end Thursday following a 3-2 loss to Webb School of Knoxville.
“We just had a let down on Thursday,” Pickell said. “It was a pretty good game and a pretty even matchup, which it is every year ... usually a one-goal game. We played pretty tough, physical soccer. I think we controlled the pace of the game pretty well.”
Pickell hopes to get more players back this week. The Lady Panthers take on Stone Memorial High School at 7 p.m. today.
“As far as Stone Memorial, that will be another tough, physical game,” he said. “It was a good game last year when we played them, but they’re a little better this year. It’ll be fun, and those are the games I try to schedule that are more like us and about our size and type of players. It’s more of a realistic comparison to where we are as a school.”
Even with several starters slated to return, Pickell said he will continue to lean heavily on proven younger players such as Brogdon and Rodriguez.
“Last season, I didn’t play at the forward as much and it was kind of hard because last year I was on the wing,” Brogdon said. “I’ve had to figure out how to play it and how combine it and make passes and runs. I feel like I’ve done better than I would’ve last year.”
“I think it was good for us because the first game, we lost Maely (Nixon) and she’s a really good defender,” Rodriguez added. “We ended up being able to play really good without her, and then we lost (Kimberly Huichapa) and Ruby (Morales). They’re really good players, but we learned that even with a missing player that our defense really stepped up.”