Northeastern Kentucky girls soccer this season was about as unpredictable as everything else in 2020.
Russell made an improbable run in the postseason, only to fall short of the state final four in kicks from the mark after entering the 16th Region Tournament with only two wins and a six-game losing streak.
Then there was East Carter, who entered the region tournament with a bull’s-eye on its back with a goose egg in the loss column and a region-leading nine wins, only to fall to the Lady Devils in the final.
And, of course, the Rowan County upset of host Boyd County in the opening round of the region tournament after falling 4-0 to the Lady Lions 10 days earlier.
Regardless of the storyline, upset or heartbreaks along the way, East Carter coach Tyler Walker said the competition this season was at a different level.
“The 16th Region was special this year because of how competitive it was,” Walker said. “I think five, six (teams) had a really good chance to win region and that is great to see in this area. In years past, there has sometimes just been one team that was just way better than everyone else but even though we went undefeated in the regular season we were not just going to beat everyone easily. Soccer is definitely growing in this area and I think that will become more evident within the next couple years. I know there are a couple teams, including East, that will be pretty young and continue to grow year to year.”
Walker was named All-Area Coach of the Year after guiding the Lady Raiders from a 10-7-2 mark in his rookie campaign last season to an 11-1-1 mark that abruptly came to a halt in a 1-0 loss to Russell in the region title game.
“It obviously feels great to be recognized as Coach of the Year, but the award is definitely because of the girls,” Walker said. “I told them multiple times that they were the reason for the success, not me. I may have given them some instruction and put them in certain situations, but their work ethic and drive was amazing to see. They helped make me a better coach this season, so all my success goes to them.”
East Carter made the most of every opportunity it had in the regular season with key wins over Ashland, Boyd County and Prestonsburg.
“This season was special and we enjoyed it for sure,” Walker said. “It did hurt to not have it end with a regional championship, but I could not have been more proud of my team. After losing in the first round the year before to Fleming, our after-the-game talk was not about that loss but about the upcoming season. The girls really took to heart wanting to be the best they could and I think we accomplished that.
“Going undefeated up until the regional championship is not an easy task, especially against out-of-region opponents like Montgomery County and Prestonsburg. The girls played this season with more heart than I have ever coached and what they accomplished on the field was great to be a part of.”
Walker admits having eight seniors — all but one who started — made his job from the sidelines much easier.
“I think the most special thing about this squad was the leadership,” Walker said.
“Having seven starting seniors, I never had to worry about lack of leadership. Their competitive drive and will to win was evident in every practice and game. They had a goal that they had set their mind to and never took a day off. Even with all the uncertainty regarding the season because of COVID, they never lost focus.
“Another amazing thing I love about this team is that they genuinely get along. We never had any problems off the field and they just enjoy being together.”
Joining Walker at the head of the class is Russell’s Lena Blanke, who earned All-Area Player of the Year accolades. Blanke closed out her senior season with 24 goals and five assists while propelling the Lady Devils on their deepest run in postseason history before falling to North Laurel, 3-2, in the round of eight.
“Being recognized as the Player of the Year is a huge honor I’ve thought about ever since I began playing soccer,” Blanke said. “My passion for the sport fueled my determination to receive these accomplishments and I am ecstatic with being given the opportunity to represent my outstanding teammates and school.”
Blanke and the Lady Devils caught fire at the right time to quickly put a six-game losing streak they were riding coming into the region tournament in the rearview mirror. Russell outscored its opponents 18-1 in the region tournament and semi-state against Estill County.
“We spent most of our regular season trying to figure out lineups and positions, since we didn’t have any time to do that pre-season due to COVID-19,” Blanke said. “When postseason came around we started playing to the potential I knew we could the whole season; it just took us a while to put it all together. None of this would of been able to happen without every single one of my teammates. Even though a majority of the team are underclassmen, they all really stepped up when they needed to and put everything coach (John) Perry taught us during the season together.”
Of Blanke’s 24 goals, 10 came in the postseason, including the lone goal scored in the 1-0 win over East Carter for the region title.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better last season,” Blanke said. “I am beyond proud of my team and what we accomplished this year.”
Ashland led area teams with four members selected based on coaches’ voting. Milei Baker led the LadyCats with eight goals and an assist. Callie Jackson added four goals from her midfield position. Twin sister Casey Jackson and Mimi Moore anchored an Ashland defense that allowed just over two goals a game and pitched four shutouts.
Russell, East Carter, Boyd County and Rowan County added three players each. Joining Blanke for Russell is Ava Quinn and goalkeeper Raegan Williams. Quinn netted 11 goals and a team-high 18 assists as a freshman, tying for fifth in the state. Williams averaged 7.1 saves per game and recorded four shutouts, three of which came in the postseason.
East Carter added three seniors, led by Alyssa Stickler, who paced the Lady Raiders with 16 goals and seven assists. Keeper Kaitlyn Conley pitched six shutouts in 13 contests played by East Carter and allowed only 11 goals. Sarah Haney anchored the East Carter defense.
For Boyd County, an 0-3 start to the season was a distant memory by the time the Lady Lions entered the postseason on a nine-game winning streak. Adding Laney Whitmore to the mix was a welcome addition to the offense that had managed only one goal in three games. Whitmore provided 12 goals and three assists in her 10 games and recorded a hat trick in her second game with the Lady Lions.
Fellow senior Olivia Parsons added five goals and assisted on a team-high 13 of Boyd County’s 38 goals. Lexi Marcum anchored the Lady Lions defense that recorded four consecutive shutouts leading into the region tournament.
Senior Natalie Peyton led the Lady Vikings in goals scored and assists with seven and six, respectively. Fellow senior Audrey Evans added four each. Sophomore Haven Ford spent most of her season at midfield but made a seamless transition to goalkeeper in the opening round of the region tournament in a 2-0 shutout of Boyd County. Ford also worked the net against East Carter that ended in a 2-1 shootout loss in the semis.
Fleming County’s Hayley Applegate led the state in scoring with 44 goals as a junior. She finished three in the state in total points scored (92) to lead the Lady Panthers to an 11-5-1 record, falling to Russell, 4-1, in the opening round of the region.
Lawrence County’s Ellie Webb rounds out the team after netting 23 goals and adding 23 assists for the Lady Bulldogs, leading in both categories as a senior. Webb’s 69 total points placed her 12th in the state.