Tuesday, April 05, 2011

SPORTS >> Sylvan Hills kicking in with youth on rosters

Leader sportswriter

Youth has been a plus for the Sylvan Hills Lady Bears soccer team and has caused a struggle on the boys’ squad.

The Lady Bears (6-2, 2-0 5A-Southeast) have leaned on young talent on the offensive front while relying on senior experience defensively in the early going.

Freshmen midfielders Abi Persson and Calyn Fulton have scored most of Sylvan Hills’ points this season with 15 goals each for an average of just under two goals a match.

Although a freshman, Persson is a team captain, and has experience playing against boys on the classic soccer circuit. Persson and Fulton lead a freshmen front that came along just in time for the Lady Bears, who were in danger of not having enough personnel to field a team.

“It’s an amazing amount of freshmen,” Lady Bears coach Nate Persson said. “Probably 75 percent of the of the roster are freshmen, and many of the best players. They’re already competitive, so it points to a bright future.”

The Lady Bears finished third in the recent Paragould invitational tournament with a first-round victory over Vilonia that had to go into a penalty-kick overtime after the teams battled to a 1-1 tie at the end of regulation.

Jonesboro beat Sylvan Hills 3-1 in the semifinals, and then the Lady Bears won their consolation matchup with host Paragould 3-1.

“It certainly has been a surprise,” Persson said. “One thing we’re doing is a new training program where we use 3-on-3 drills. Another thing we’ve done is filled the schedule for the maximum amount of games.

“That gives them plenty of playing time, and they will learn twice as fast in games than they will practices.”

Senior goalkeeper and team captain Hailey Norris anchors the defense and provides team leadership, as does starting defender Sara Talley. Norris and Talley represent most of the experience, and the addition of basketball players Naomi Gregory and Kashima Wright adds team speed.

But the biggest difference for the Lady Bears has been improved morale, Persson said.

“We have a new attitude where there’s a lot more participation,” Persson said. “In the past there has been the idea of not going to all the practices. We often didn’t have a full roster, but this year, we have extra subs.”

The Lady Bears are tied for the conference lead with Little Rock Christian Academy, which benefits from having a roster full of classic league players.

Seizing a conference title from the long-dominant Lady Bruins may be a tough task for such an inexperienced team as Sylvan Hills, but the main goal this year is some postseason success.

“At the beginning, we had one goal, and that’s to win one game at the state tournament,” Persson said. “The girls have gone in as a lower seed the last several times and were eliminated right away against teams with a much higher seed.

“The key for us is to do well in conference so we can draw a higher seed.”

The boys’ youthful look caused growing pains, but the Bears (2-4) recovered from the four early losses to start the season to win two straight 5A-Southeast Conference games.

“We lost our starting goalkeeper, our center midfielder and forward,” coach Sam Persson said. “We lost a combined 40 goals between Josh and Jacob Persson.

“But we have a good group of kids and some good talent even though we don’t have a lot of experience.”

Sylvan Hills lost its season opener to Little Rock Parkview 3-1 before going 0-3 in the Paragould tournament.

But the Bears bounced back in their league opener to beat Mills 3-1. Noah Peters opened the scoring for Sylvan Hills and Jeremiah Persson scored on a free kick before the Comets let the ball through their own net to inadvertently help out their opponent.

The Bears made it two straight victories when they beat Monticello 6-2. Jeremiah Persson had a game-high three goals and Armando Garcia, Nate Clark and Edwin Smith also added scores.

Sam Persson said it took time for his revised strategy to set in with his young squad.

“Because we are so young and starting several ninth graders, and we have a couple of kids who have experience playing club soccer, we’re playing with a style where good touch is required,” the coach said. “We’ve been using it since the beginning of the season.

“In high school, it’s a funny thing, because you’re not out there recruiting, you’re playing with the ones who show up. You have to tailor the kids to a style of play, but you also have to tailor your style of play to the kids,” Persson said.