New school. New position. No problem.
Former Scott County soccer player Cara Maher found a new home in Russell’s already formidable lineup for her junior season.
Quick and highly skilled with the ball, Maher played a leading role as the Lady Devils dominated the 16th Region and advanced to the State Tournament’s Elite Eight for only the second time in school history.
In the aftermath, Maher was selected first team All-State.
Area coaches overwhelmingly voted her All-Area Player of the Year.
While pleased with the news, Maher would rather speak in team terms. Russell finished 18-6-1 against a demanding schedule.
“I feel like we all learned how to come together as a team,” Maher said. “That’s what got us far.”
Said Russell coach Joe Grizzle: “Cara is a very humble player. She thinks of the team.”
Maher came from a defensive background, but during the preseason Grizzle pressed the issue about a switch to center midfielder.
“Cara finally said, I will play wherever you need me to,” Grizzle said. “During the summer, I have the team a lot by myself because the assistants are working at their jobs. I kept telling Rick Roberts the new girl will be able to play in the middle. When he was finally able to get out and see her play, his comment was ‘Yes, she will.’”
What Maher lacks in size, she makes up for with talent, toughness and determination.
She scored at least one goal in 17 of the Lady Devils’ 25 games and finished with 27 overall. Maher also tallied nine assists.
“She played really well,” Grizzle said. “For Cara to be able to adapt to a position that she normally never played, it meant a lot. ”
Russell’s previous state quarterfinal appearance came in 2008, but the Lady Devils went the next four years without a district or regional title before this season. They beat Ashland 4-0 in both finals.
While Maher wasn’t around to experience those disappointments, she was happy to play her part in helping Russell end the district and regional droughts.
“The feelings you get from that, just the sense of accomplishment, it means so much,” she said.
Grizzle and Lawrence County’s Brett Jenks shared Coach of the Year honors after both teams reached the Elite Eight.
Russell, which had seven first team All-Region players, defeated South Laurel in the opening round of the State Tournament before falling to eventual state champion Notre Dame.
“Our starting 11, I thought, was about as solid as it could be at every position,” Grizzle said. “This senior group was probably the easiest I ever had to coach. They all seemed like good leaders as well as giving great effort. When the seniors work hard, everybody else on the team works hard.”
The Lady Devils started five seniors, including All-Area selections Heather Hencye (11 goals, 13 assists) and sweeper Jennifer Sloan. Hencye was second team All-State; Sloan honorable mention.
Russell’s outlook is bright for 2014. Along with Maher, Russell returns All-Area Teamers Lexie Frisby (13 goals, 9 assists), Morgan Vonderheide (9 goals, 9 assists) and center defender Shelby Huddleston, another second team All-State pick, plus some other proven players.
Lawrence County’s program, only in its fifth year, will also return several key players after back-to-back trips to the state quarterfinals. The Lady Bulldogs outscored 15th Region opponents 95-7 this season.
“Our region is a little weaker,” Jenks said. “We had a little easier path, but we’ve been able to take the opportunity we have and make it two years in a row to the final eight.”
In the program’s early days, Jenks had a difficult time finding quality opponents.
“People just didn’t think we would be any good,” he said. “Getting to the Elite Eight last year helped change that.”
For example, Lawrence County received an invite to the Tates Creek Showcase this season and beat Lafayette 1-0 during early October.
“That’s probably the biggest win in our history,” said Jenks, who last year was All-Area Co-Coach of the Year with Ashland’s E.B. Lowman. “Even though Lafayette was not the premier team in Lexington, there were a lot of eyeballs on that game.”
Lawrence County finished 20-6, with three of the losses coming against top 16th Region programs Russell and Ashland. Each beat the Lady Bulldogs 6-1 during Lawrence County’s Homecoming week, when the team played six games.
“That was a bad week for us,” Jenks said. “Our kids were tired when we went up there. I’m not trying to make excuses, Russell and Ashland both have good teams.”
Lawrence County graduates only one starter and will be looking to make an even bigger push next season.
Leading the way will be returning All-Area players Shelby Hay and Mollie Workman. Hay amassed 38 goals and 11 assists as a junior and was named second team All-State. Workman, who finished with 24 goals and 14 assists, received honorable mention All-State recognition.
“We have a group of girls that want to go farther,” Jenks said. “They want to get to the Final Four.”
Of the 16 players on the All-Area Team, 11 will be back.
East Carter’s Macy Dyer closed out a terrific career with 36 goals and eight assists as a senior. Dyer was honorable mention All-State. The Lady Raiders will also be saying goodbye to one other All-Area selection — Taylor Burnett (9 goals, 13 assists) — from a 17-4-1 team. Junior Megan Stickler, also All-Area, had 22 goals and 11 assists.
Charity Collins (17 goals, 11 assists), Aidan Young (21 goals, 5 assists) and senior defender Emily Bond represent Ashland. Collins and Young were honorable mention All-State.
Rowan County (14-7-1) placed Hannah Bandura (22 goals, 17 assists) and Ally Hackney (17 goals, 2 assists).
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2671.