HUNTSVILLE — Scott High made no secret of its goals going into the 2019 season. The Lady Highlanders wanted to win championships.
“Hardware” was the key word for the Lady Highlanders. They wore it on their team t-shirts, and it was the focal point dating back to summer conditioning workouts. And while they came up short of that goal, falling to Anderson County by a single goal in the District 5-AA championship game before ending their season against Cumberland County in the region semifinals, their head coach was not disappointed with the 2019 season.
“As a whole I’m not really disappointed because our girls played lights out the last three or four games and they realize they don’t have to take a back seat to anybody,” Eric Henry said of his team. “I’d put my team up against anybody, any day of the week. We’re more than competitive.”
Winning the district and region championships were key goals for the Lady Highlanders because they had come so close last season. Henry said it was “disheartening” that his team lost twice to Anderson County in those championship games after defeating the Mavericks in the regular season.
Scott was close again this year. The district championship game against Anderson County was decided by a goal the Mavericks scored in the 98th minute, with 89 seconds remaining before penalty kicks would’ve decided the game.
“We even worked on penalty kicks a couple of times the week prior because I had a sneaky suspicion we would make it all the way to penalty kicks,” Henry said. “I was extremely confident that we would win out in that situation.”
Ultimately, Anderson County scored the late goal to avoid a PK situation. But Henry refused to let his team dwell on the loss.
“They were all kinda taking ownership and were torn up about it,” he said. “That’s a good thing because it shows they were all bought in. But it was just unlucky. Sometimes things don’t go your way.”
Five days later, Scott High again found itself in an overtime situation. Traveling to Crossville to face the District 6-AA champion, the Lady Highlanders had Cumberland County in overtime in a 1-1 deadlock before the Jets scored two goals to win it. If not for what Henry described as a breakdown in the back, the Lady Highlanders would have won the game in regulation, and it would’ve been considered a monumental upset.
Cumberland County went on to advance to the state tournament, which is being played this week in Murfreesboro.
“Going into that region game I was a little concerned because in the first game we lost to Livingston 4-0 here, and Cumberland County beat Livingston twice,” Henry said. “A few minutes in, they’re passing the ball all over the place and I thought, ‘That’s good.’ Fifteen minutes in I thought, ‘You know what, they’re just kicking it and going after it. There’s no real purpose.’ Then we had a corner kick and Julia Butts scored, and I’m pretty confident.”
By the time the first half hit its midway point, Henry had seen enough to know that his team was just as good as Cumberland County.
“After 20 minutes, I’m thinking, ‘We’re gonna win this game.’ I’m envisioning playing Livingston at home for the region championship.”
Ultimately, it didn’t work out that way. There were plenty of tears after the loss, as there always is after season-ending losses, but Henry said his players were mostly disappointed because of their respect for their seniors.
“They think so well of our seniors,” he said. “There’s always a little bit of teariness and stuff because you lose, but it was mostly for those seniors. All of them were big for us. Asher (Ellis) and Macy (Brown) were the heart and soul and the backbone of our team. And I think a lot of those girls — not just as players but as individuals.”
It is a senior class that has left an indelible mark on the Lady Highlander soccer program. While the last two senior groups were the first to win a district championship and the first to go undefeated in district play, this year’s senior class finished with 31 wins across their four-year careers. That’s the second most in school history, behind the Class of 2015, which finished with 34 wins. It’s the first senior class to advance to the regionals three times. The seniors also finished with a record of 15-6 against district foes across the last three years — the best three-year league record in the program’s history.
In addition to Ellis and Brown, seniors included Kristin Skogman, Jestine Phillips, Audriana Boles and Lily Cross.
The TSSAA’s long-overdue split of public and private schools three years ago has helped change the prospects for local teams. In the old days, Oneida and Scott were both in District 4-A/AA, and both knew the district would be won by a Knoxville private school — CAK or Knox Catholic — each year.
“The way it used to be, you’re like even though you do win the second round (of the district tournament), you’re going to play a private school so the season’s over,” Henry said. “Now we’re making plans for where we’re going to go for the region and even sectionals last year. It’s a completely different outlook. We’re no longer sitting behind the privates.”
Both local teams have taken advantage. Scott High is the only team in District 5-AA to make the championship game each of the three seasons since the realignment. Oneida has won District 3-A all three years since realignment.
“It just made everything right, in my mind,” Henry said. “Apples to apples is a fine comparison with me. I have been coaching a long time and I was tired of sitting behind the privates. I think immediately you saw across the state exactly how great things went for local soccer. You’ve got two teams here competing for championships and in the region every year now. They hadn’t had that opportunity before because of the privates. It was just unfair to the student-athletes.”
Still, Scott High isn’t capitalizing simply because the privates are no longer in the picture. The school has earned a reputation as a tough place to play a soccer match — and not just because of the long drive up the Cumberland Plateau. There is parity in District 5-AA. Anderson County and Loudon have lots of club participation among their team members, and any of four teams — the Mavericks, the Redskins, Scott and Kingston — can win the district in any year. Each of this year’s postseason games in the district, with the exception of Kingston’s opening round win over Clinton, were decided by a single goal.
Henry said his team has built its reputation because of his players’ focus on the little things.
“Someone commented about our girls, how hard they play and how they expect to win when they get out there,” he said. “It’s all about standards. You set them, you set expectations, and then you hold them to it. You play with who you’ve got. If someone doesn’t measure up on or off the field, sorry guys. It’s about character, it’s about integrity, and it’s about dedication. Once they buy into that, everything else is easy. Regardless of what kids say today, they like structure and they like discipline.”
The Lady Highlanders will miss their seniors, especially in the defensive game — which was the strength of this year’s team. The play of Ellis and Brown spoke for itself. Henry called Cross the most improved player on his team. Replacing those five won’t be easy, although he does have some younger kids who can play the game. He pointed out that Rylee Cotton, a junior, was forced to step up due to an injury this season and became one of the team’s best players. He has kids like Morgan Shelton, Brianna Jeffers and Kaelyn Jeffers who he hopes will mitigate the losses in the back. And if he can find someone who can slip into the leadership shoes being vacated by Ellis and Brown, the Lady Highlanders could find themselves right back in championship contention next season.
“As long as I can keep them with the expectations of we get there because of the work we put in in June and July, we’ll be fine,” Henry said. “But we can’t be resting on our laurels. And I don’t think we will.”
The play of the Lady Highlanders has been an inspiration for the Scott High athletics program. It is a school that is often over-looked by the Knoxville-area counterparts it is paired with in district and region play. But the Lady Highlanders have forced the school into the conversation of first-class high school athletics programs by building an expectation of championships.
“Our kids take it serious,” Henry said. “We win games and it’s expected for us to be there and to behave accordingly.”
Winning breeds winning, and expectations breed expectations, and some of that can bleed over to other teams. Henry points out that the Scott High boys soccer team, which he also coaches, has elevated its play.
“The boys are playing better now,” he said. “They win more games in the spring. I think they see what the girls are doing and they aspire towards that.”
In the meantime, don’t expect the Lady Highlanders to go anywhere anytime soon. With a large number of freshmen and sophomores receiving varsity minutes this season, Scott High will again eye the top of the district again in 2020.
“I’m really proud of my girls,” Henry said. “They played lights out the last two weeks against teams that may have been better finesse teams, but when you come right down to it, a lot of times hustle beats finesse and muscle.”