In a night designed to honor seniors that turned into what felt like a torrential downpour, Sweetwater soccer made the adjustments needed to close out the regular season with a 4-1 District 4-A win over Bledsoe County on Oct. 7.
The rain and poor field conditions forced Sweetwater Coach Mallory Gruenenfelder into finding the right changes to unlock a compact Bledsoe County team.
“Really, because of the torrential downpour that we were playing in, it is an interesting situation to be in. All of the things that we have been working on this season —passing balls to feet, being precise and winning 50/50 balls out of the air — go out the window in that situation,” Gruenenfelder said. “It was really interesting to see that diamond midfield functioned better when we took out the pieces we were having difficulty with. The ground was so wet that it just absorbed all of the balls out of the air and eliminated that skill that we had been lacking.”
The Lady Wildcats (5-4, 2-3) were facing issues connecting their passes out of the back and moving the ball around against the mud.
Gracie Barnett struck first — a product of the ingame adjustments made from Sweetwater. Barnett received a cross from midfield before taking a touch and firing a hard shot into the left corner of the goal.
“We had been asking them that, when they are in the box and in front of the goal, to hit it as hard as you can at the goal,” Gruenenfelder said. “When the ground is the way that it is, we cannot make those little passes. And she completely took that to heart and knocked one pretty hard into the left side of the goal.”
Ali Hicks put an indirect freekick sitting on the 18 into play for Kaylee Lloyd to fire in with her left foot for the second goal of the night.
Jenna Gibson, a senior, picked up the ball in midfield and dribbled past two defenders to create, and finish, her chance in the middle of the goal — Sweetwater’s third goal of the night.
Oxamara Alonso, another senior, finished off her penalty for a fourth Sweetwater goal.
In the first half, Gruenenfelder noticed how Bledsoe County was struggling to deal with Sweetwater pressure and pinned themselves back inside the defensive third.
“They kind of dropped back some and played a lot more defensively,” Gruenenfelder said. “They were trying to get the ball out of the back as quickly as they could. Defensively, they have a pretty strong goalkeeper and their number eight was all over the field, so they really utilized her on attack.”
Sweetwater’s roster boasts 10 seniors starting with goal scorers Barnett, Gibson and Alonso. Goalkeeper Kylee Hicks joins that list along with Ali Hicks, Areya Deja, Rylee Jo Foxx, Paris Robinson, Cristina Sloan and Emmalee Sutton.
“This group of seniors is the biggest group that we have had, as far as I have known, and it is really special to me because it is the class that were freshman when I started coaching. I have gotten to coach most of them the whole time in high school and it has been really fun to see them develop as a group, as players and as individuals,” Gruenenfelder said. “We lost one of our classmates and teammates last year, Emily Corona, and it was really hard for that group of girls in particular. It has been really neat to be a part of their group and watch them support each other through that time.”
The Lady Wildcats entered the District 4-A Tournament on Monday as the fourth seed — hosting Sale Creek. Bledsoe, as the sixth seed, traveled to Polk County.
“I think we are in a good place as far as defensively. We’re missing some people next week for fall break — we will be without our goalkeeper, Oxamara and two other starters. It will take some adjusting, and playing in positions we are not necessarily used to,” Gruenenfelder said before Monday’s District Tournament quarterfinal. “We know what Sale Creek looks like, so we kind of know what to expect there, but we have to come out quickly and come out strong. We just have to take care of business early — I think we get kind of caught up with how other teams look and we tend to lose focus on that it is in our hands at the end of the day.”
Jenna Gibson scored in the 76th minute of the District 4-A Quarterfinal, cutting Sale Creek’s lead down to four. Four minutes later, the final whistle closed out the year for the Lady Cats with a 5-1 loss to Sale Creek.