Jeff Williams knows defense wins championships.
His players? Not so much.
But the first-year Culleoka girls soccer coach eventually persuaded the Lady Warriors to get on board with his coaching philosophy, and the result was a historic run to within one victory of a Class A state tournament berth.
“We built everything up from the back and we really didn’t get blown out any this year. All our games were tight,” Williams said after a season-ending 2-1 state sectional loss Saturday at Madison Academic. “It all starts from the back and goes forward.”
A critical piece to the defensive puzzle was shifting the Norton twins, Maddie and Mary Beth, to the back line. The two juniors were key offensive components as freshmen, before stepping away from the program last season. Under Williams, they anchored the defense from their center fullback positions.
“They’d actually never played defense before,” he said. “(This year) they kept everything together. They fought me on it for a long time, but I think I finally got them around to being OK with playing defense.
“Every goal not scored is as good as a goal scored.”
That defensive alignment — with Kylie Williams and Kaydence Humphrey on the outside, Esmeralda Rivera as the defensive midfielder and Annabelle Demastus in goal (52 saves) — sparked a Culleoka program that had only advanced out of the district tournament once since its 2008 inception.
“I think he kinda made some scheme changes,” Culleoka athletics director Doug Sharp said. “I don’t know a lot about soccer, but talking to him and (assistant coach) Derrick Adkison — Jeff knows what he’s doing. I think they started buying in to what he’s wanted to do all season. I think they were playing their best soccer the last couple of weeks.”
The Lady Warriors struggled with District 10-A rival — and state tourney qualifier — Huntland for much of the season, with three of their losses in a 6-7-3 finish coming at the hands of the Lady Hornets. However, Culleoka did play Huntland to a 2-2 draw during the regular season and earned a similar outcome against perennial Class AA toughie Fairview.
“Huntland’s the one team they couldn’t get past,” Sharp said, as the Lady Hornets defeated Culleoka in the district tournament finals and again in the Region 5-A title game.
Offensively, the Lady Warriors were led by freshman strikers Sophie Williams — the coach’s daughter — and Sarah Thompson. Williams scored a team-high 21 goals with three assists, while Thompson finished with seven goals and a team-leading nine assists.
“Most of our team (10 of 15 players) is freshmen and sophomores,” Jeff Williams pointed out. “Kaydence is a senior, and Chris Brown is a senior. She was the ‘12th man’ most of the season and filled in everywhere we needed subs, because we didn’t have a whole lot of players.”
With the bulk of this year’s roster returning, plus an influx of talent coming from the middle school level, Williams likes the direction of the program.
“I think next year will be a big year for us,” he said. “We’ve got some good people coming up from eighth grade, we’ve got some seventh-graders that will be able to play. They’re buying in to actually playing real ball; they’re not just getting out there and playing ‘kickball’. They actually look like a soccer team.
“I think they’re finally getting it, seeing the results, buying in to doing what they need to do. I’m excited about next year.”