Apr. 3—The Clarkdale girls soccer team entered the 2020-21 season with high expectations; the trick became fulfilling those expectations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite never consistently having every starter during the regular season, the Lady Bulldogs went 8-0 in MHSAA Region 5-Class I. Once the team finally got everyone back at once, Clarkdale went on to make it all the way to the state semifinal round of the Class I playoffs, something the Lady Bulldogs hadn't done since the 2011-12 season.
Because of their success, Clarkdale girls soccer coach Brandon Rodgers was named the 2020-21 Premier Preps girls soccer Coach of the Year.
"It definitely came as a surprise," Rodgers said of the recognition. "It's definitely humbling and an honor to be selected."
Making it to the semifinal round, in which Clarkdale was defeated by St. Patrick 2-0, wasn't surprising to Rodgers.
"I felt like we had a good shot at going pretty far based on the players we had returning," Rodgers explained. "I knew it would be a matter of getting the season completed. Talent-wise, we had a team that could compete with all the others (in our classification)."
The pandemic was the biggest challenge in gaining any consistency. Right after the 2019-20 soccer season, all spring sports were canceled, and there was concern about whether or not the season could be completed this winter as well. Ultimately it was, but it came with a few hiccups for the Lady Bulldogs.
"It was challenging at times," Rodgers said. "I think we probably didn't have everyone together in a single game for the most part until the very end of the year. That kind of worked in our favor with the playoffs, but when we started the season we were stuck with the whole high school being shut down for two weeks, so that put us behind. It was pretty challenging because we couldn't practice or play for a two-week period."
Senior Mary Ashley Culpepper, a Premier Preps selection at midfielder, said having a leader like Rodgers was important during a more chaotic season than normal, and she also appreciated how dedicated he was to the team despite not being employed by the school full-time.
"I enjoyed playing for Coach Brandon just because of his commitment to the team," Culpepper said. "With him working another job, he was still always at practice and willing to take time out of his day to be with us. I enjoyed the way he coached the game and how he knows the game really well. It made it easy to play for him."
Clarkdale has gone at least two rounds deep in the playoffs the past three years and has not lost a game in its division since the 2016-17 season, and Rodgers credits the players for that success during his tenure coaching the team.
"Their understanding of how I want them to play has developed greatly during the five years I've had them," Rodgers said. "I'm pleased with how far they've come from when I started to where we are now."