By JD McCarthy for the Opelika Observer
The Smiths Station Lady Panters know that for them to accomplish their goal of reaching the Final Four, they will likely have to go through Auburn. The two will have their first matchup of the season Friday and the Panthers are ready for the chance to prove themselves against their area rival.
“Auburn is of course the game we have been looking for all season,” said head coach Dennis Jones. “Auburn is always a tough matchup and we like to have a little bit of confidence going into that game.”
The Panthers should have plenty of confidence as they are 7-1-2 and have won three straight games. However, Jones knows his team will have to play well to keep up with undefeated Auburn.
“In order to beat Auburn, we’re not going to be able to let them set up and pass the ball and shoot the ball, we have to be all over them.”
The Panthers have been led by their defense all season, but they recently made some changes and Jones is excited to see how those work against Auburn.
“In the Dothan game we were pressing a lot, really hustling a lot and getting after the girls on the Dothan team and not giving them a chance to settle the ball, receive the ball, time to play it,” Jones said. “So, we worked on that and it really worked in our favor, Dothan really couldn’t maintain possession during the game because we were all over them. I’m kinda hoping we can carry that over into these two games to see how it works to carry it into the Auburn game.”
The Panthers won a “nail biter” Tuesday against Trinity Presbyterian, prevailing 3-2 in a back-and-forth affair.
“We did not play our best game of the year,” Jones said. “Trinity was able to tie the game twice after we went ahead twice. But instead of hanging our heads, we continued to play strong until we converted our third goal. We did the same last night, kept fighting until the end. There is no quit in this team.”
The Panthers hosted Beauregard on Tuesday for Senior Night but results were unavailable at press time.
The defense has been the strength of the team all year and Jones admitted it prevents him from being worried about any offensive struggles.
“They are pretty good, that’s what we do, we lean on them a lot,” Jones said. “I don’t have to worry about scoring a lot of goals in games because I know that my defense is really not going to allow too many goals.”
The group has plenty of experience and is led by center backs Sarah Bruce and Alana Tapia.
“Those two girls really hold it down for us in the back,” Jones said. “Sarah is kind of the bruiser; kind of the punisher I guess you could say. She takes on all comers and Alana is the speedy one, she is there to back Sarah up and if anyone can get past her she normally covers her back and has enough speed to help Sarah out a lot.”
The experience of the defenders has proved helpful as Savannah Harlan, who is just an eighth grader, continues to get more experience in goal.
“It’s scary to be honest with you,” Jones said of having such a young goalie. “It’s real scary, she just doesn’t have the experience that the other girls have had. She’s very aggressive, she’s smart, she knows what to do, she’s athletic. She can get the job done, she’s also in that gelling process right now.”
The stellar defense from the Panthers has allowed the offense to progress and Jones has liked what he has seen in their recent win over Central-Phenix City and Dothan.
“We did a little bit more scoring,” Jones said. “We got a couple more players involved in the scoring and they are starting to gel. I think from here on out I’m really looking at more players contributing on the offensive side of the ball and hopefully scoring more goals.”
Jones credited the extra offense to three girls who have played well all year in Morgan Ritter, Kylie Pritchett and Emma Tapia.
“Morgan Ritter, she is really playing lights out,” Jones said. “She is the distributor and kind of a playmaker; she is really doing well. Kylie Pritchett has really stepped up, she scored two goals for us in the Dothan game. Emma Tapia, I mean, she is always phenomenal, she plays lights out every game. We like the ball to go through her and the ball to touch her foot every time.”
The increased offense paired with their lockdown defense will be crucial for the Panthers to reach the programs first ever Final Four, which Jones believes his team is certainly capable of.
“I think we are, I think there’s only about two or three teams in the southern part of the state that can keep us from making the Final Four, but we will see.”
The Panthers will get to test themselves against one of those teams for the first time on Friday when they play Auburn.