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When the Elizabethtown girls’ soccer team went to its annual team camp this summer, the Lady Panthers’ senior captains, center midfielder Jesse Giles and goalkeeper Haley Jones, were nowhere to be found.
“Oh, I don’t think that looks bad,” Giles said. “We were both at a leadership conference, so I think it attests to us being chosen as captains.”
They also missed the first two weeks of preseason practice and conditioning.
At least they had good excuses as both players were attending the prestigious Governor’s Scholars Program at Murray State University. Giles focused on communication and social theory with a sub-focus on the reality of reality, while Giles dealt with cultural anthropology (her third choice) and her sub-focus was violence.
“We got to read Stephen Hawking,” Jones said. “It was mind-blowing, but I loved it.”
While they were away, Giles and Jones made sure soccer wasn’t being completely forgotten.
“We ran every day,” Giles said. “And a soccer club was started, so we played every day.”
“There were tons of pick-up games every night,” Jones added. “So we got our touches on the ball. We still got in shape there.”
Once the duo rejoined the team, they began preparations for a repeat of the Lady Panthers’ mind-blowing campaign from last year in which they became the first area girls’ team to advance to the state tournament’s final four.
But in order to make it back to State, Elizabethtown had to do it with almost a completely new cast. Giles and junior star Dani Wilson were the only returning starters, while players such as Jones, midfielders Rebecca Black and Natalie Fiepke saw time off the bench last year.
“When you lose 11 seniors, just with that inexperience, people can assume that you’re going to be bad,” Giles said.
But the Lady Panthers didn’t assume so.
“With some of these girls, that’s not necessarily their fault,” Jones said. “We’ve seen them in practice throughout the years, but unfortunately, some of them hadn’t had a lot of time. But we had the confidence in ourselves. We just had to prove to everybody else that we could still be successful.”
While the Lady Panthers had new faces in new places, Giles said it didn’t take long for the team to get in a groove.
“I think we’ve had great chemistry to begin with,” Giles said. “Everyone’s friends. It’s not like the seniors are friends, the juniors are friends. Everyone has a good chemistry together.”
Knowing the Lady Panthers were going to need key contributions from their underclassmen – the starting four on the backline doesn’t have a senior, nor did the defense have a returning starter – Jones and Giles wanted the team to know age was not an issue or factor hindering or helping their success.
“We focused on making sure there wasn’t an exclusion with the younger kids,” Jones said. “We’re not JV or varsity or seniors or underclassmen. We’re all one team. As captains, we worked to emphasize that all year to help that chemistry.”
Jones also noted that just because someone was new to starting did not necessarily mean she couldn’t handle it or she was going to struggle. After all, Jones was a first-time full-time starter too after playing behind the graduated Madison Smith last year.
“I was naturally a little bit nervous because I really hadn’t played that much varsity, but I just knew as a captain and as the starting goalkeeper that I had to step up and be a leader on the field,” Jones said. “With only two starters back and just six seniors, I had to set the nerves aside and just focus on making sure everyone else was ready to play.”
With Jones taking care of things in the back, Giles works with Black, Fiepke, Wilson and other players to make sure the offense maintains its shape and composure.
Giles said the offense has worked hard on its combination passes to set up scoring opportunities.
“Just holding possession in the midfield allows for everyone to get up as a team,” she said. “It’s not always about a quick break to Dani because that can lead to a lot of transition play and sometimes we can’t transition as fast. If we can hold play in the middle, it allows for more people to get up and more people to get back.”
Giles’ and Jones’ careers could come to a close tonight as the 5th Region Tournament champion Lady Panthers (16-10) play at 8th Region champion Oldham County (21-0-1) at 7 in the first round of the KHSAA state tournament.
Elizabethtown enters as a heavy underdog, but Giles said the team embraces such a role.
Soccer fans around the state might forget the 17th-ranked Lady Panthers led top-ranked Louisville Sacred Heart, tied No. 5 Oldham County on the road in regulation and tied No. 14 Louisville DuPont Manual in regulation before falling to all three.
“That attests to what we can do,” Giles said.
Nathaniel Bryancan be reached at 270-505-1758 or firstname.lastname@example.org