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Second time around: Russellville girls eager to take next step in year number two

At this time last year, the Russellville High School girls’ soccer team did not exist. It was just an idea.

And even after head coach Trey Stanford held the first tryouts in January of this year, he knew afterwards that the new program would require patience.

“Last year, before the season started, there were very few, if any, girls that had ever played soccer before,” Stanford said. “Some of them had never even kicked a ball before.”

So, not surprisingly, there were growing pains. A lot of them. And for much of Russellville’s debut season, the Lady Golden Tigers struggled, often losing by five or more goals to far more experienced competition.

But, over the course of the year, Russellville improved. At the end of the 2017 season, the Lady Golden Tigers would only have two wins to their credit, but the strides taken from February to April were apparent and left Stanford feeling optimistic going into the offseason.

“I mean, I think the improvement from the beginning of the year to the end of the year for the girls was incredible,” Stanford said. “At the end of the season, those last few games, I thought we played better than our opponents, overall. We may not have won those games, but we did a lot better controlling the ball and creating chances to score.

“Considering where we started, we got a lot further than where I thought we’d be at that point."

Now, the Lady Golden Tigers are in the middle of their first offseason conditioning and training program, something as new to the girls as soccer itself was just seven months ago.

“Working out in the summer, that’s a completely new idea for a lot of these girls,” Stanford said. “It’ll take some time to get used to, but I believe the girls know that's what it takes to be a successful program.”

Give the Lady Golden Tigers some credit, Stanford said. A lot of people would complain or just give up when faced with training in the heat of Alabama’s summer. For Russellville’s girls, the reaction has been quite the opposite.

“I can’t really explain how proud I am of the girls,” he said one morning last week. “Right now, as we speak, the girls are out there on the field, on their own, practicing their passing and shooting. I didn’t tell them they had to do that. They have a desire to get better–they want it–and that’s something you can’t coach into somebody."

In preparation for the summer and the 2018 season, Russellville held tryouts for the new team in May. While there are some new faces, one major positive for the Lady Golden Tigers is that the team has every player from last year returning.

“We didn’t have a single senior on last year’s team,” Stanford said. “Everybody is back, so I’m really looking forward to seeing how much they can improve.”

On June 16, the Lady Golden Tigers played in their first exhibition of the summer. The friendly against Madison Academy ended in a 6-nil loss for Russellville, but the girls’ play appeared to be building on to the improvement seen in April.

“They’re definitely getting better,” said assistant coach Fred Ambrosio, who joined Stanford’s staff midway through last season. “We’re improving our touch and our control of the ball. Over the summer, I think we’ll have a lot of things to work on and hopefully be much better before next season.”

Ambrosio, who works extensively with the girls' team, said strategy and communication will be a key focus this offseason.

“I think one of the biggest things is the girls lack some imagination and an understanding of where to go sometimes,” he said. “They’re still learning about the game, and it’s tough to teach them stuff like that in an hour-and-a-half.

“But that’ll be one of the things that we’ll keep working on this summer and, hopefully, by the time next season is here we’ll be more aware of things going on in the game."

With most of the 2017 roster coming back, one thing that will not be lacking, however, is experience, and players with experience are more willing to lead. That is the case, Ambrosio said, with three seniors: Zayra Perez, Carmen Perez and Jaquelin Tristan.

“They get frustrated at practice when other girls don’t do something the right way or work as hard as they should,” he said. “They let them know about it, and they’re very vocal about doing things the right way.”

At practice and in training, players let their voices be heard, but Ambrosio said another improvement the Lady Golden Tigers will have to make is with communication on the field.

“Off the field they talk, but during a game they’re not very loud, so we’ve got to work on our communication,” he said. “If you don’t communicate, others won’t know if there’s a man on or who the ball is going to. That’s important, because if you don’t talk, then it’s a lot easier for the other team to take the ball away.”

On the field, with so many returning players, many starting positions have been seccured. The coaching staff discussed a number or players that will have an impact again this season. One was striker Zayra Perez.

“Zayra is a lot more comfortable in that spot now, I think,” Ambrosio said. “She’s more comfortable with the ball, and her footwork and touch has gotten much better. She could still be more aggressive sometimes, but she’s getting better.”

Another player, on the opposite side of the pitch, is rising sophomore goalkeeper Briana Ramirez. Ramirez started every match in goal for Russellville last season.

“Briana Ramirez, our goalkeeper, is a boss,” Stanford said. “She’s made a lot of incredible saves, and she kept us in some games that we probably had no business being in. For someone that never played soccer before last season, she’s really good, and I’d be willing to put her up against any goalkeeper in the state. That’s how good she is.”

Other impact players include Juana Juarez and Gisel Perez.

“Juana is one of the most hard-working players on the team, and she does a good job of controlling the midfield for us,” Stanford said. “And Gisel, she had a lot of problems with shin splints last year. This year, with the training she’s doing, hopefully we can avoid that, because she’s one of the fastest players on the team. I’m really excited to see what she can do.”

But even with all the returning players, there are still a few new faces. Two in particular, Ambrosio said, will be making an immediate impact.

“One is Kaitlen Arzola, who is a defender and just a really great athlete,” he said. “The other is Michelle Betancourt–she’s a midfielder. I think both of them will be on the field a lot and will be important to us next season.”

As the summer rolls on, the 2018 season gets closer and closer. As it does, Stanford said his Lady Golden Tigers will continue to improve, and he’s optimistic that 2018 will be a good year for the squad.

“These girls are extremely hard workers and they’ve completely bought in to the program,” he said. “We’re going to keep getting better and better because, at the end of the day, the girls want to keep getting better. That’s what it takes to build a program.

“Last season wasn’t the kind of season these girls wanted, and they remember how it felt to lose and how it felt to win. I think that’s what’s driving them.”

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