In many ways, an old adage applies to this year’s Lady Highlander squad — “out with the old, in with the new.”
After four straight district championship game appearances, and a regular season district championship last season, Scott High graduated seven seniors. And, in a bit of an anomaly, all seven of them started.
As a result, this year’s team may look a bit unfamiliar to casual fans. Seven of the 11 starters will be new faces. But the change goes even deeper than that. All seven of last year’s seniors started either on defense or in the middle of the field. As a result, the Lady Highlanders return most of their players up front, while they’ll break in an entirely new defense.
“We don’t rebuild; we just reload,” Scott High coach Eric Henry said, echoing a statement he made after those seven seniors played their last game in the region semifinals at Livingston Academy last fall.
“We have a really nice group of freshmen in here. We’ve had three good classes in a row, which is almost unheard of in many sports, especially soccer,” Henry added. “The freshmen are eager to learn, they listen, for the most part they’re aggressive, and they’re not slow.”
Besides the truly new faces among that freshman group, several of the players who will be sliding into starting roles for the first time aren’t new. Senior Morgan Shelton, junior Kaitlyn Butts and sophomore Rachel Garrett will step in on the defensive end, and all played significant minutes last year in reserve roles. Junior Kalin Jeffers comes in as keeper, after patiently biding her time for an opportunity.
“She has waited patiently because Allie ‘Hawks’ started the last four years,” Henry said of Jeffers. “She said she wanted to be in the goal, and she’s done a good job.”
When Henry talks about his freshmen, he mentions several specifically: Alyssa Crabtree could very well hold down a starting role in her first season of high school soccer, while Riley Lantz, Abby Henson and Praylee Sexton could also see key minutes.
“We’ll plug them in and see what works,” Henry said.
One thing is for sure, though: With only about 13 upperclassmen, he’ll rely on his younger players.
“I told them going in, you freshmen are going to have to pick up the slack,” he said. “It’s hot and nobody can play 80 minutes in this heat. Soccer is probably the only place in high school sports where you can walk in as a freshman and get playing time on the varsity level. It just doesn’t happen unless you’re Trey Morrow or somebody special like that. I have never shied away from playing younger people. I think that helps us as they get older, by the time they’re juniors and seniors and have to be leaders.”
The small number of upperclassmen is especially evident among the seniors. There are only three of them: Mikayla Higginbotham, Gracie King and Shelton.
Higginbotham may well be the heart and soul of this year’s team. She’s aggressive and plays with hunger. After coming off the bench to play a big role offensively as a freshman and battling injuries as a sophomore, Higginbotham became one of the Lady Highlanders’ most consistent players last season, as a junior.
“If I could clone anybody, it would be her,” Henry said. “She’s just aggressive. She wants to win the ball every single time.”
King is also a returning starter, playing on the wing.
The Lady Highlanders’ junior class includes several players who have contributed since they were freshmen. Among them are Olivia Rector, twins Chloe and Katie Tucker, and Abby Reynolds. Two sophomores — Garrett and Ellie Lowe — also played minutes as freshmen.
“That helps when you get in a situation like we’re in, where you lose seven seniors,” Henry said. “I love them, I miss them, they’re a great group of girls. But now they’re gone, and you move on.”
One junior who’s currently not on the field is Zoey Terry. She’s still recovering from an ACL injury she suffered during basketball season. She’s several weeks away from being cleared to play, and Henry is anxious for her to be back.
“She was a spark offensively for us last year, so I’m anxious to get her back in the rotation,” Henry said of Terry.
Another of the juniors is Butts. Henry laughs when he says that she’ll anchor the defense this season.
“If anybody had said, as a freshman, Kaitlyn Butts is going to start and anchor the defense as a senior, even Kaitlyn would’ve laughed,” he said. “Last year she was on the fence about playing and I told her, your sister (Julia) is a senior and you’re not going to have this opportunity again. But more importantly than that, next year you’ve gotta be my guy in the back. Our most improved player, by leaps and bounds, is Kaitlyn Butts. She knows she’s not the fastest player on the team, but she plays smart and she plays hard and she knows she’s gotta be in the right position at the right time.”
Up front, Lowe is expected to slide into a starting role at the forward position. Henry likes her leg strength and her work ethic.
“She doesn’t just come in in June and say, ‘Let’s play soccer,’” he said. “She works all the time, with whoever she’s with.”
Henry told Lowe as a freshman that he was going to make her a scorer, and he says she’s close to being that type of player.
“She’s almost bent the bar a couple of times with her shots,” he said. “That’s how strong she’s gotten.”
Opposite King on one wing will be Chloe Tucker, while her sister, Katie, will move into a starting role in the center of the field. Rector will also start in the middle, which is a change for her from last season, when she was at forward.
Henry said that he can do what he’s able to do with his midfield because of what Butts and Garrett bring to the back.
“Rachel was being Rachel and she was aggressive (last season) and I put her in at Livingston and she got her nose broke,” he said. “She was timid all last year.” This year, he added, “When we got into July, Rachel was the old Rachel — which was, ‘I’m gonna run you over and get the ball, period.’” After the second or third time we scrimmaged, I said, ‘That’s the Rachel Garrett I fell in love with.’ She has to learn to be a little more vocal and help these younger guys. She doesn’t talk a whole lot on the field but the girls respect her because she just plays.”
Other players who he mentions are sophomore newcomers Adriana Baird and Angel Cooper, freshmen Estrella Harness, Chloe Lowe and Bella Sharpe, and junior Hannah Daggs.
As the season begins, Henry is still trying to sort things out and find the right places for each of his players.
“We’ll be a few games in before we settle in,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure things out.”
The preseason has been a bit of a struggle for the Lady Highlanders. In three games at Clinton to open the preseason, the team did not score a single goal. Henry said his team didn’t play particularly well against Oak Ridge or Sevier County that day, but played a very good Grace Christian team to a 0-0 draw.
“It was disappointing that we didn’t get one in the net,” he said. “Yeah, we’re young on defense. But if our offense is keeping pressure on the other end of the field, then we shouldn’t have to worry about defense.”
Henry said the key will be for his team to take advantage of the breaks.
“We have to do better on our free kicks, whether they be corners or in the middle of the field or wherever they’re at,” he said. “We have to finish those. When you play good defense, what you’re looking for is the turnover through ball, so you can turn and go. A lot of teams have better controlled touches and they can pass better than us. That’s just the way it is. We’re not great at possessing, we’re not great at controlled touches, so we have to be more aggressive. The wings have to make better runs, and when we get opportunities we have to finish.”
After four straight years in the district championship game, Henry knows that his team will get its opponents’ best shot each Tuesday and Thursday night. That’s how he likes it, but he points out that even though this year’s upperclassmen have played in the district title game every year, they don’t know the feeling of actually winning a championship. Scott High last won the district tournament championship in 2017.
“I would hope that will be an extra bit of hunger for these girls,” he said. “Maybe this group of juniors and seniors, and sophomores, will say, ‘Hey, we gotta do better.’ It’s up to the want-to. I can coach a lot of things — passes, touches, shooting, keeper drills — but I can’t coach want-to. The girls have to be the ones who want that ball, who want that win, who want more than just, ‘I’m on the soccer team and I’ve got a cool jersey and gear.’ Let’s do something. Let’s put some new numbers on that banner on the wall. That’s what we want to do.”