By JD McCarthy
For the Opelika Observer
Smiths Station soccer coach Dennis Jones knows his program isn’t seen as a traditional soccer powerhouse, but he thinks this year’s team has proved its time to start respecting Smiths Station soccer.
“We did what we wanted to do,” he said of making the Final Four. “We showed the state that we are a defensive soccer program and that we got some good soccer girls coming from this area and that’s what we want. We want to be known as a soccer program and get a little bit of respect.”
The Panthers proved they belong by punching their ticket to the programs first ever Final Four with a 1-0 win over Fairhope on Friday.
The low-scoring affair was a typical Panthers game, where they played stellar defense and did just enough offensively to win.
“We know if we can keep a team from scoring more than one goal, we are going to have a couple of chances to score and usually we can convert at least one of them,” Jones said. “We know that we just have to keep them from scoring, and we will get an opportunity eventually.”
The Panthers have executed this strategy perfectly in their first two games of the postseason. The Panthers have yet to allow a goal after they beat Prattville 1-0 before shutting out Fairhope. Jones has struggled to describe just how good his defensive unit is.
“I’m one-hundred percent completely confident in my defense,” he said. “I just can’t explain it; they just play so well together … They are just so experienced; they are veterans, they’ve been playing together for a longtime. They know how each other plays and they have each other’s backs and it’s really just a hard thing to score against them.
“They have so much confidence in each other, they are not afraid to step out of their comfort zone in the game because they know somebody is there to have their back.”
One player who has been key in their first two games is Savannah Hattaway. The sophomore midfielder has been given the job of marking the other team’s best scoring threat, something she has done a great job of according to Jones.
The Panthers goal against Fairhope came from Kylie Pritchett. Who is really just one of two Panthers who are more offensively focused, Jones admitted.
“Our thing is that we play good defense. My outside midfielders really take pride in playing defense and when we get a few opportunities during the game we are trying to get the ball high to Kylie or Morgan Ritter.”
The goal was enough to punch the ticket to Smiths Stations’ first ever Final Four for either girls’ or boys’ soccer, something that Jones can barely describe.
“To be honest I don’t even have the words for it because it’s uncharted territory we are entering,” he said. “I knew that we had just as good of a chance as anybody else and this is big for the program. It kind of solidifies this team as probably the best team in Smiths Station history.”
Next, the Panthers will face a familiar foe in Enterprise on Friday for a spot in the championship game. The two programs played earlier in the year and the Panthers lost 8-3, in what Jones called the “only bad game we’ve had all year.” The game was the Panthers first game back after spring break and was tied at half before Enterprise pulled away early in the second half.
While Jones has plenty of confidence in his team, Enterprise is a challenging matchup due to their team speed, something the Panthers have struggled with at times.
“They are fast,” he said. “That is one thing that we are not as good against. Enterprise likes to play the long ball and chase and that does prevent some problems for us but we’ve played some fast teams this year and we’ve done ok.”
While Jones knows his team will be in for a challenge, he sees no reason his girls can’t come out on top and play for the AHSAA 7A State Championship on Friday.
“They are going to have to play 80 minutes,” he said. “They are going to have to give it all, they are just going to have to stay in it for 80 minutes. If they take the foot off the gas for one minute anything could happen so it’s just play for the full 80 minutes. I don’t see why we can’t take care of business against Enterprise.”