ELIZABETHTOWN — The East Bladen girls varsity soccer team will enter the NCHSAA Class 2-A state playoffs Tuesday touting one of North Carolina’s stingiest defenses, and head coach Jay Raynor — who says there are valid reasons for the Lady Eagles’ defensive success this season — claims it’s not part of his focus in practice.
“It’s funny you ask about our defense but, honestly, it’s not something we spend a lot of time on,” Raynor said recently. “My main focus over the last few years with my teams (boys and girls) has been the attacking side of the game.
“I am a firm believer in forcing the opposition to make mistakes,” he added. “I want to use their mistakes against them and capitalize on those mistakes as often as possible. To me our best defense is our best offense. If I can pin you back and keep you in your half around our attacking one-third, then we will, in turn, win the ball in advanced positions which leads to shots — hopefully leading to goals.”
East Bladen has done just that, and through the regular season of play has outscored its opponents by an 89-5 margin — including a 70-2 margin within the Three Rivers Conference. At the other end, they’ve had a 378-39 margin on shots on goal.
If there is one area where defense shows, it’s possibly in the number of steals — where East Bladen has tallied 2,129 through its 17 matches, an average of 125 steals per match. The Lady Eagles are led in the category by Katie Evans with 228 in 17 games, Sara Gargala with 201 in 14 games; Gracyn Martin with 200 in 17 games; Cybil Campbell and Kenia Media with 196 each in 17 games; Hannah Devane with 164 in 16 games; Ashley Hardin with 162 in 11 games; Izzy Smith with 161 in 17 games; and Patience Ward with 149 in 16 games.
Raynor said he emphasizes the quote “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard!” within his program.
”For me that should happen all over the field and not just in the back,” he said. “Everyone on the field must be able to attack (when we have the ball) and defend (when we don’t have the ball). So defending actually happens all over the field and can start with your front line.”
Raynor added that the work ethic on the field started back when his father Ray “Doc” Cross was coaching the East Bladen soccer program.
”I remember him always stressing the ideas of pressuring the ball and getting to the back post on shots,” Raynor said. “Hard work is just something we had to do for years and, now that we have some talented players coming through, we have continued to work even harder. This has impacted our speed of play and the intensity of how we play.”
Working hard and outworking the opposition is a main ingredient for most coaches, regardless of sport. So what is it that has made the Lady Eagles so successful on the pitch?
“The girls have completely bought into our system,” he said. “What I have found with utilizing our system is two things: 1) it’s relative easy for the players to understand their roles; and 2) it allows us to utilize our athleticism and force our will on our opponents.
“We use our formation to dictate where our opponents play the ball,” Raynor said. “For me this is the reason for our success, because not only do we pressure high up the pitch but we make an almost unpredictable game, predictable.”
But Raynor said there’s more to the success East Bladen has had.
“The key has been the understanding of the system and the attitude these young ladies have,”They push each other hard and push each other to do their job. They hold each other accountable.
“Our captain’s (Hannah Devane and Ting Lin) do an excellent job of making sure everyone does their job,” Raynor added. “Our philosophy is that we are going to score four goals and our opponent will have to score five beat us. That isn’t us being cocky but simply re-enforcing the idea that we are going to concentrate our attacking and be on the offensive. I think that mindset is what leads our defense to being so strong. We aren’t thinking about how we are going to keep teams out of our net, we are thinking about how often we can put a shot on goal.”
Running through the conference season undefeated at 14-0 and adding three non-conference wins — two against Class 4-A Scotland County — led Raynor to heap praises on his Lady Eagles team.
”This is one of the best teams I have ever coached,” he said. “The chemistry and the friendships they share is amazing. They are willing to help each other out and get on to each other as well. No one takes it personally and they understand that we all are in this together.”
And together, they have a Class 2-A championship in their sights.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached at 910-862-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.