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Entering his first full season coaching the Elizabethtown Lady Panthers, Pat Black had reserved optimism.
Sure he was able to take over during the regular season last year and lead Elizabethtown to the state tournament’s final four – the first for an area girls’ program. But nine of those 11 starters would graduate, leaving junior speedster Dani Wilson and senior midfielder Jesse Giles as the only players with starting experience.
The team took some lumps this season. While it should have been a rebuilding year, Black didn’t tone down the schedule. He joked the team’s four shootout losses entering the postseason must be some sort of record.
For those wondering, the KHSAA doesn’t track that particular statistic.
However, while Elizabethtown was losing those games, the Lady Panthers were getting better and showing promise. The winning percentage took a hit, but Black knew the Lady Panthers would be battle tested come the postseason.
“We’ve put in a lot of hours over the last 12 months. We set some high goals and expectations and that kept us motivated to work hard,” said Black, whose 5th Region Tournament champion Lady Panthers (16-10, 15-5-5 in regulation) play at 8th Region champ Oldham County (21-0-1, 19-0-3 in regulation) at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the first round of the KHSAA state tournament. “The girls have worked hard throughout the year. We knew we had a lot of good solid talent coming back, but they just had tremendous talent above them last year.”
One of the biggest areas the Lady Panthers have worked hard in is their young defense. Senior goalkeeper Haley Jones, who saw spot time last season, has had to help mold a backline which does not have a senior.
“Haley’s been tremendous. She’s not the highest jumper or the fastest goalkeeper around, but she’s solid when the balls come her away,” Black said. “She has no fear going 1-v-1 for a ball. She’s a fearless goalkeeper and fundamentally, she’s just solid.”
On the wings of the diamond defense are the unrelated sophomore Pattersons, with Carly on the right and Izzy on the left. Izzy is noticeable because of the cast-looking sleeve she wears to protect her left pinkie, which has torn tendons and will need off-season treatment.
“Her pinkie, well it doesn’t work. She can’t move it. It just sort of flops,” Black said.
Junior Emily Harrison started the season at sweeper before moving to stopper. An early season injury to Harrison gave sophomore Cierra Garcia a chance to start. Garcia, who buried the winning penalty kick to beat Central Hardin in last week’s region final in a shootout at the Elizabethtown Athletic Complex, has since moved to stopper.
“We’ve got a defense that doesn’t have a senior on it. We knew they would have to get a lot of lessons in them, learn to adapt, mold and gel,” Black said. “It took time. We’re not the same defense we were in name and position as we were at the beginning of the year. It’s been a trial and give and take.”
The midfield has used different formations, recently going to a 4-5-1 against Central Hardin. The center midfield is anchored by a trio of two-sport standouts in Giles (swimming), sophomore Rebecca Black (golf) and sophomore Bailey Nall (track). Giles (four goals, 14 assists) scored the go-head goal in the region final, Black (17, 19) leads the area in assists and Nall (two, zero) can cover plenty of ground in a hurry, as proven by her Class 2-A, Region 2 track championship in the 200-meter dash.
Senior tennis star Natalie Fiepke (seven, five) plays right wing and senior Jackie Thompson (one, two), a former defender, is on the left flank. Other midfielders who get plenty of time include sophomore Brooke Hawkins (10, one), senior Brooke Johnson (seven, zero), freshman Paige Palalay (four, three) and junior Kyleigh Adams (one, two).
“The biggest attribute is they buy into everything I tell them. They work hard at trying to execute everything in the game plan, right down to the last detail,” Pat Black said. “I’m pleased as punch with them.”
Up top, there’s Wilson. Although with her whirling dervish nature, she ends up on the left, right, midfield and anywhere she thinks she can acquire the ball. Her 43 goals are one off Jenna Goblirsch’s school record.
“She’s had a good year and we were counting on her in a lot of situations,” Pat Black said.
Black gave the team off Saturday and today, but the players still ended up having some bonding time Saturday night at a player’s house.
As a coach and a dad, Black said he enjoys being around this surprising team on and off the field.
“They’re downstairs singing and carrying on and doing crazy stuff and enjoying each other,” Black said. “They’re definitely a true team. They get along and they do things together. It’s pretty fun to watch.”
Nathaniel Bryancan be reached at 270-505-1758 or firstname.lastname@example.org.