Editor’s Note — This is the 2020 team preview for the Scott Lady Highlanders. The Oneida Lady Indians have not yet been available for a team photo, and therefore will be featured next week.
HUNTSVILLE — There’s a large sign hanging at the Scott High School soccer field, mostly blank. In the upper left-hand corner, in relatively small print, a year is imprinted: 2017.
It’s the year the Lady Highlanders won the District 5-AA championship, the first in program history. And the significance of the way the sign is printed is obvious: it’s meant to be added to.
“You can have one nice banner when you win something like that,” Scott High coach Eric Henry said. “And that’s great, but it’s all about expectations.”
Henry has always had high expectations for his team. Even before the public school-private school split revolutionized Tennessee high school soccer, the Lady Highlanders — who shared a district with perennial state championship contenders Knox Catholic and CAK — won a lot of games, usually finishing the season well above .500. But since those private school Goliaths were removed from the landscape of public school soccer, the expectations have been elevated. Scott High won the district championship that first year. And while they haven’t yet been able to replicate that accomplishment, they’ve been close every year. They went undefeated in the district during the 2018 regular season, advancing to the Class AA state sectionals for the first time in program history, and have finished runner-up to Anderson County each of the last two seasons.
“Kids will do what you expect them to do at this age,” Henry said. “A lot of people don’t realize that. A lot of people are, ‘teenagers this’ and ‘teenagers that,’ but teenagers are there for a reason: if you give them expectations and discipline, and set the bar high, they will not let you down. A majority of kids want to succeed.
“That’s the kind of atmosphere we’re trying to breed here,” Henry added. “I’ve always had the expectation that we’re going to win. I fully intend to put several more years up there.”
That’s the challenge for this year’s Scott High team. This year’s seniors have never failed to advance to the district championship game, and have the potential to put that next year on the sign. But expectations must be shared by players and coaches alike — and those accomplishments have to be more than expected; they have to be wanted, and worked for.
To that end, Henry is waiting for this year’s seniors to embrace the expectations.
“I wonder if the success we had has spoiled us a little bit,” Henry said. “What I think this year’s seniors are failing to realize is that a lot of success is in your head before you ever get on the field. If you think, ‘This is what we’re gonna do,’ that’s great. But you’ve gotta put the work in to get there.
“I’d be greatly disheartened if we aren’t in the district championship game every year with the girl’s team,” he added. “But we have to capitalize. Other teams aren’t just gonna say, ‘Oh, it’s Scott High, we lost to them last year.’ It doesn’t work that way.”
The challenge for this year looms especially large because Scott High is missing four starters from last year’s team that advanced to the regional semifinals. Audi Boles, Lily Cross, Macy Brown and Asher Ellis all played key roles for the Lady Highlanders, and Brown and Ellis were all-region players.
Replacing those departed seniors will be key for the Lady Highlanders. But one luxury Henry has is a load of returning players who received varsity game experience a year ago. He makes a habit of playing kids based on how hard they go in practice, not their age, and that’s likely to be a theme again this year.
“I’ve got 11 spots, and a good player will probably run three or four miles in a game,” he said. “So I’ll play a lot. I had 28 players at one point. We’ve settled at around 25 or 26, with a large sophomore class. All of those girls will play quite a bit. Several freshmen will be on the field. The only way to learn the pace of the game and the way things are doing is to be out there. I lose six seniors this year, so the more I play those younger kids, the better off I’ll be next year.”
The Lady Highlanders will start the 2020 season on August 18 when Oliver Springs visits. Henry is spending his time between now and then with full-field, 11-on-11, intrasquad scrimmages as he tries to sort out who belongs where.
“I have lots of girls, maybe a half dozen, that I can put anywhere on the field,” he said. “It just takes a game or two to sort that out. Not having preseason scrimmages (due to coronavirus) hurt us, so we’ll do a couple of weeks of full-field scrimmaging. That’s the good thing about our numbers. A lot of teams can’t go 11-on-11 in practice.”
The first senior that Henry mentions is Rylee Cotton. She stepped up last year as a junior, anchoring the center mid position when Julia Butts went down early with an ankle injury, and she found herself as a player.
“Rylee was absolutely phenomenal for us last year in the middle of the field,” Henry said. “We just kinda threw her in and she did great with it. And she’s showing the same tenacity this year. She sees the field well and controls the ball well.”
Tori Sexton, another of the seniors, is one of those versatile players that Henry will move around some, depending on where she’s needed.
“She’s mobile enough to do that,” he said. “She’s a big, strong presence in the middle of the field defensively.”
Abby Bridges is the team’s center fullback, and is entering her third season in that role. Allie Bailey is also a veteran player between the posts, having been the team’s goalkeeper since she was a freshman and entering her senior season with three years of experience under her belt.
Dara Stanley, another of the team’s seniors, is a versatile player who can play the middle of the field or up front. She scored goals as a sophomore and as a junior, and Henry likes her work ethic.
Alliyah Nagy is another senior, a defensive specialist who Henry said can start and play a lot, with a heavy leg that bodes well in the back.
Rounding out the senior class is Julia Butts, and Henry is to the point when he says he’s waiting for her to reach full potential.
“She’s a kid who goes absolutely as hard as she can,” he said. “I’m still waiting for her to show that on the soccer field. I’ve been hard on her, and she’s been mad at me a few times, which is okay, because when she shows up, we’re going to be a pretty good team.”
The Lady Highlanders’ small junior class includes Morgan Shelton, Mikayla Higginbotham and Gracie King.
“Gracie has really stepped up her speed,” Henry said. “She’s a long, lanky girl and she’s serious about playing. She has stretched the field in some of our full-field scrimmages, and we’ll get a lot of balls down the side and down the wing where she will do a lot.
“Morgan is a defender; she’ll come in and relieve people. That’s what she does,” Henry added.
Higginbotham was out with an injury for part of the 2019 season, but she scored a lot of goals as a freshman. “She’s just a beast across the middle,” Henry said. “She’s one of those girls I can put anywhere. If I need a bruiser up front, it’s going to be Mikayla Higginbotham, hands down.”
The Lady Highlanders are sophomore-heavy, with a huge second-year class, many of who played significant minutes as freshmen. Most of them will play a lot of minutes this year, as well, and some of them will start.
“They may not all get the starting nod,” he said. “I may have two players who are equal as far as talent goes and stuff like that. But the vast majority of them will play a lot of minutes.”
Olivia Rector is one of those sophomores who saw significant time last year. She scored goals, and can play a variety of positions from the middle of the field to the front. “She can play anywhere,” Henry said. “She’s a hoss, and she has a low center of gravity. She has a really strong leg for her size, too.”
Twins Katie and Chloe Tucker both play on the wing, and both saw varsity minutes last year.
“Katie sees the whole field really well,” Henry said. “Chloe doesn’t see the whole field yet, but that comes with playing time, and I could probably put either of them upfront or on the wing.”
Brianna Jeffers brings height to the team, and the same height that works well on the basketball court works well on the soccer pitch. Because of it, she’ll fit well in defensive support roles.
Abby Reynolds is one of the team’s smaller players, but she makes up for her size with aggressiveness and speed. “If I had one quality that I could pass on from Abby Reynolds to everybody else,” Henry said, “she’ll come up and ask me, ‘What am I doing wrong? What do I need to do better?’ She’ll ask me those things. When you have a player who wants to know that badly, good things will happen. She scored goals last year as a freshman, and she’s tiny but she backs down from nothing or nobody.”
Kaylan Jeffers will back up Bailey at the keeper position, and is also a defender who could see time in that role, as well. Zoey Terry, another sophomore, is a speedster who will play on the wings and could play up-front. Kaitlyn Butts will play on the back end and will likely be one of the first defenders off the bench, while Hannah Daggs will play a wing position.
It’s a big group of sophomores, but Henry said that’s a good thing.
“The sad thing with some of the teams we play is they don’t have enough for a JV team,” he said. “Anybody who does have enough, I try to schedule for a JV game, and at least get a half in.”
The Lady Highlanders’ freshman class includes Julie Lawson and Ellie Lowe from Huntsville, Gracie Lewis from Fairview, Rachel Garrett from Burchfield, and Abbie Hearn.