Friday, May 19, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> Cabot sees familiar foe with new outlook

Leader sports editor

Exactly one year ago, on May 20, 2016, every returning player on the Cabot girls’ soccer team set a goal to get back to where they are today – the state championship game at Razorback Field in Fayetteville in Arkansas’ highest classification. The goal is revenge and to alleviate the pain of last year’s 3-0 defeat to Bentonville.

At 4 p.m. today, the opponent is the same, and looms just as large as ever, but the key difference this year is Cabot. The Lady Panthers have had a single-minded focus on returning to this game. A year’s experience and a ton of gained confidence makes for an obviously different approach, according to head Panther Kerry Castillo.

“Their mindset is so different,” Castillo said of his players. “They were scared to death last year, just scared to death. They’re really confident this year. There may be a bit of nervousness, I guess. But I really think it’s more anxiousness. They want this game. I’ve talked about playing this game again since tryouts and really since before that. We made it our goal to finish right here a year ago. I can just tell they’re full of confidence.”

The team’s two leading scorers corroborated their coaches’ account. Junior Tristyn Edgar, who will graduate early and play next year for Tulsa University, echoed Castillo.

“Last year we were terrified to play them,” said Edgar. “As soon as the buzzer went off we were all devastated. The next week we had practice. So we started toward this last May.”

Senior Hadley Dickinson, who will be a UCA Bear next season, says the goal was set even sooner.

“I think immediately after it happened,” said Dickinson. “As soon as time ran out on the clock I knew I wanted to get back here.”

And the fact that the opponent is the same team is an even bigger motivator, according to the senior.

“We have a chip on our shoulder since they beat us last year,” Dickinson said. “It just makes us want to beat them more.”

That will be no easy feat. The Lady Tigers are 21-3, but have not lost to a team from Arkansas all season. They are 18-0 against in-state competition, and two of their three losses were the first two games of the season way back on Feb. 21 and March 3.

Those in-state games, for the most part, haven’t been close. In their 18 games against teams from Arkansas, Bentonville has outscored its opponent 87-3. The 14 7A-West Conference wins were by a combined 75-3. The Lady Tigers overall goal difference, including the out-of-state games, is 105-14.

“They are very solid, defensively,” Castillo said. “I watched them play Har-Ber and Southside in the playoffs, and they’re good offensively, too. They’re athletic, a very good attacking team. They’re a tremendous challenge for anyone.”

Bentonville’s dominance is even more impressive considering how many players the team graduated after last year. One key player that didn’t graduate, though, is leading scorer Lauren Hargus. Even though a total of 15 different players have scored at least one goal this year, Hargus has scored more than twice as many as anyone else with 29. Senior Emma Welch has scored 14 goals and freshman Angelina Diaz has posted 11 goals.

“Watching them play, I didn’t see a lot of familiar faces,” Castillo said. “That is, except for Hargus. She’s a dangerous player. We’re certainly going to be looking for her.

But what makes Bentonville so good is, they’re the same – same every year. Same style of play, same philosophy, same characteristics. They just hone. They hone and hone until they’re really good at it.”

Sophomore Gracen Turner, who started as a freshman in last year’s title game, points out on particular things she’ll know this year that she didn’t necessarily know last year.

“They are very physical,” said Turner. “I feel like we really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. So from learning from last year, we’re coming into it with a little more confidence.”

Cabot, likewise, has had an impressive season. The Lady Panthers are 23-2, and haven’t lost in more than two months. They have 18-straight games since falling 1-0 at Little Rock Christian Academy on March 8, and that game is a toss-out.

Castillo missed the game with a family medical problem, and starting goalkeeper Maggie Martin was also out.

Their 2-1 loss to Fayetteville on March 4 was avenged emphatically just six days later, 4-0, and then again on Saturday in the 2-0 win in the state semifinals. Cabot’s total goal for and against this season is 96-23.

With so few low points, the Lady Panthers have not had many moments of adversity. One came in the quarterfinals against Bryant. Cabot had dominated the action throughout, but missed several shots on goal, and then suddenly found itself in a 2-2 when Bryant scored with only 14 minutes to play.

“I think there’s always that chance for the scary moment when you just go, wow, what is going on,” said the goalkeeper Martin. “But I don’t think there’s really been any moments of doubt. There’s just been points in the season where we lost focus maybe a little bit. But right when that happened our coach was right there to point it out and get us back on track.”

Edgar leads the Lady Panthers with 33 goals this season. Freshman Kiley Dulaney has scored 21 and Dickinson has added 16.

Dickinson also leads the team in assists with 23.

“Hadley and Tristyn are such strong players,” Castillo said. You add Kiley to that, who plays much the same way. All of them can just beat two, three even four defenders. They get all the attention. But then you have girls like Gracen. She started last year but she’s a different player this year, and so dynamic. Her soccer IQ has really developed. She’s one, during the game, we can talk tactic and it’s a short conversation. She can fully grasp what I’ve told her and give me feedback.”

While the goal scorers have the star athletes (Edgar is the list of school record holders in track as well) some of the team leaders are on defense, starting with senior Joelle Long.

“She starts at center back for us,” Castillo said. “When you think of a field general, like a coach on the field, that’s her. She directs and encourages everyone else, and she does it in a way that really has the other girls’ ear. Not to say Hadley and Tristyn, who are my other two captains, aren’t like that. But Joey really has the knack because everyone knows she’s on their side. I look out there on the field during a game, at any given time, and she’s smiling. Just all three of them, really, I couldn’t ask for better leaders on the team.”

Dickinson, who transferred to Cabot after winning a state championship as a sophomore at Bryant, perfectly exemplified the team’s different approach this year to the championship.

“Last year we were really nervous,” Dickinson began. “There’s no need to be nervous this year because I think we’re the better team.”