Tuscola soccer off to a hot start

Mar. 17—Tuscola's varsity girls soccer team has started its season off with four wins and one loss.

The team is under a new direction this year, with former Tuscola boys soccer coach John Douthit taking over head coaching duties.

Douthit has been coaching soccer in some form since 1992, he said. So far, he's seen a lot of mental fortitude among the girls on this year's team.

"In the last three weeks alone, I've seen them come together as young ladies and a team," Douthit said.

The Lady Mountaineers field an 18-girl varsity team.

"We're able to put fresh legs on the field," Douthit said. "Our weakest player is going to be working with the strongest player on the field. We've encouraged them to be involved with them and be proactive."

The team also has five varsity captains.

"I'm blessed with having good leaders on this team," he said. "We're not going to be any stronger than our 11th player."

Another big change this season is that Tuscola girls' soccer is fielding a junior varsity team, which it did not have last year. Part of acclimating the younger girls is getting them on the field with the more experienced varsity players.

"We warm up as the whole team," Douthit said. "That builds camaraderie."

So far, it's working.

The Lady Mounties started the season with a 2-0 road victory over McDowell on Thursday, March 2. Goals were scored by Gracie Rinker (So.) and Chloe Crisp (So.) with an assist from Analyn Revelia (So.). Senior Hannah Empeno served as the primary goalkeeper and tallied three saves.

"In the first game, they were as scared as long-tailed cats in a room full of rocking chairs because they've never seen me coach. I was also just as nervous," Douthit said. "We moved chess pieces around, learned each others playing styles and looked at every player. We played the entire bench in that game."

The next game was a road 6-0 loss to A.C. Reynolds on Wednesday, March 8. The Rockets are currently undefeated after six games. Empeno got the start at goaltender again, notching 13 saves in 19 shots-on-goal (70%).

Douthit said Reynolds is a strong team partly due to two high-level club teams that feed the school but that the Lady Mounties didn't back down from the challenge.

"We were able to hold our own," he said. "We had good minutes and held it to 2-0 at halftime. We just couldn't get anything to go in."

In Tuscola's first home game of the season, the girls shut out North Buncombe 6-0 on Monday, March 13. Rinker and Revelia each scored two goals and tallied two assists each.

Taylor Sollie (Sr.) and Anna Roth (Jr.) each scored one goal. Crisp added one assist. In the goal, Empeno tallied six saves.

"We played the bench all the way to the 18th player," Douthit said. "But we weren't after a mercy rule. We were after playing minutes and developing good soccer."

The Lady Mounties added another win over McDowell, this time a 5-0 shutout on Thursday, March 16, at home.

The way Tuscola's team is set up — an experienced top half and an inexperienced bench — is a double-edged sword, Douthit said.

"We have some very talented players, and we have some very young players learning from them now. I think we'll be an army with many generals on the field who can do many things," he said. "The hardest thing we've got going forward as a program is implementing all those leaders at the same moment to overwhelm most teams."

Many of those leaders are also talented soccer players, he said.

"We've got great striking capability, great controlling capability and great defensive capabilities," Douthit said. "I've got a keeper with [three] shutouts under her belt."

Looking ahead, Douthit knows there are some tough stretches this season where the girls will face off with some very talented teams. But it's all part of the end goal.

"They understand that they're building something here," Douthit said. "The end goal is that they want to go all the play in the playoffs. If we can make it first place, we plan on keeping the run going. That's only going to work if you play as a team."

The Lady Mountaineers travel to play Enka at 6:45 p.m. on Friday, March 17, and host Franklin at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 20.