- Alma School District
By Kevin Taylor
Alma soccer coach Cory Sturdivant had everything in place: players, schedule, momentum.
Then COVID-19 swooped in and left the Alma Lady Airedales’ soccer team with a lot of unanswered questions.
“It definitely left us with some unresolved business,” Sturdivant said. “My heart goes out to that group of girls from last season to have their season end in that manner. Last year’s squad, in my opinion, was on their way to a state tournament appearance with the potential of moving through the bracket to at least the second round.”
The Lady Airedales thumped Vilonia to open 5A-West opener before, two days later, being shut down over the pandemic.
“That group of girls put in work every single practice and game and had the confidence to compete with all of the teams in our conference,” Sturdivant said. “Our girls took down Vilonia in a 4-0 victory at home in our only conference game, in which we were able to play every single girl on the team. Depressing feelings?
“More like an empty feeling of unfinished business but more importantly the lost opportunity to see that group of ladies take the field one last time as a team.”
The Lady Airedales return seven starters from a year ago, though Sturdivant may move some players around.
“Overall, we will return 13 girls from last season’s squad,” he said. “Returning starters this year are seniors Ashlyn Chronister, Ansley Kirkendoll, and Haven Frazier.”
Alma has four underclassmen starters from a year ago, too, led by juniors Riley Vann and Kenzie Rushing and sophomores Presli Taylor and Olivia Reed.
“All of these ladies will be key contributors for us this season,” Sturdivant said. “We got to see a glimpse of how big of an impact Presli and Olivia would have made as freshmen last season, and both of them will be a big part of our identity offensively and defensively this season.”
Taylor and Isabella Carbonia will be two focal points offensively, Sturdivant said.
“Presli’s aggressiveness in the attacking and ability to press defenders led to several goals for the girls' team last year in the seven games we were able to play,” the coach said. “Isabella was able to come off the bench and score a few goals last year as well as a sub and is also a threat from distance.”
Chronister returns at midfielder, Studivant said. Frazier and Lydia Bowerman will help at the wing and midfielder.
“Our strength will be returning four players who contributed significantly on defense last season,” Sturdivant said. “Ansley and Kenzie both showed great ability to play the outside fullback spot, and Olivia Reed will command the center back spot for the defensive line again. Vann is an asset to the defense but may be called upon to play a more offensive role this season.”
Alma’s biggest task, Sturdivant said, is replacing four-year starter Ava Wilkinson, the team’s keeper. Alma will also have to replace the loss of seniors Jasmine Higgins, Emily Banks, and scoring phenom Alyssa Thomas. Junior Courtney Bates moved to Texas last summer, Sturdivant said.
Sturdivant is 98-82-8 in 10 previous seasons (boys and girls), including the last four with Alma.
“We will be tested early this season due to the fact that our time for non-conference games has been shortened from two weeks to four days,” the coach said. “We had to clear the last week of the regular season schedule for a possible conference tournament, moving conference play up to start on March 5 with Mountain Home. We will get a few non-conference games to tweak things, but these will now happen in between conference games.”
Studivant doesn’t have an all-world boys team. But he isn’t ready to blow up his roster, either.
“We have solid players at each spot and a lot of depth with 33 on the roster, including 12 freshmen,” he said.
The Airedales return six starters from a year ago, including seniors Ashton Outlaw and Blake Williams. Juniors Diego Lane and Eric Dover and sophomores Demetrio Cerda and Landon Moses round out the starters.
Outlaw, Williams, Dover, and Derick Johnson are key offensive contributors, Sturdivant said. “Dover moves from outside defender to center midfielder, placing last year’s exchange student, Olof Olsson.
“Overall, the boys' team returns nine players from last season and will also see the return of seniors Derick Johnson and Aryn Wilkinson to the lineup after being absent from the shortened 2020 season,” Studivant said.
Senior Johnathan Pulido takes over at goalkeeper, the coach said. Junior Devin Ramos will serve as Pulido’s backup. Wilkinson and freshman Carlos Gonzalez will lead the defense.
With some unanswered questions, Sturdivant said the biggest key early is to see “how well the team can compete as a team and attack the opposition.”
“An entirely new defense will be tested right off the bat with matches against 4A powerhouses Clarksville and Dardanelle, and the conference opener March 5 against Mountain Home,” Studivant said. “The 2021 Airedales look to have a solid foundation at each position along with plenty of backups.
“Figuring out which players mesh well together in our early games will be the most important thing our coaching staff will be looking for as the season starts.”
Sophomore Presli Taylor (8) is one of the key returning starters for coach Cory Studivant’s girls team. The Lady Airedales and Airedales open the 2021 season next week against Prairie Grove.