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Bryant girls stay near top

by Mitchell Gladstone | April 20, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

So much about this Bryant season is not like the last.

Yes, the Lady Hornets' 9-1-2 record indicates they're right in the mix to defend their 2019 Class 6A state title. And yes, there are 12 seniors on this team that were a part of that championship run.

But that season was two years ago, well before the notion of a pandemic was something most even considered.

And it was with their coach, Nicole Inman, who died Dec. 5 after a multiyear bout with brain cancer.

Inman, in the span of two seasons, lifted the Bryant program. The Lady Hornets lost to Rogers in the 2018 title game before beating Conway the next year.

Last summer, when it became clear Inman wasn't going to be able to stay on for another campaign, first-year teacher Olivia Allard -- who'd spent the covid-shortened 2020 season as an assistant -- was named Bryant's interim coach.

"Stepping into that role, for someone who's done so much for Arkansas soccer, that's hard," said Allard, who later became Bryant's permanent coach. "But it's even harder when two of your seniors are her kids."

Allard could replace Inman as coach. Although she's just 24, Allard played for a successful Rogers program before playing collegiately as a defender at the University of the Ozarks.

She was never going to replace Inman as mom to Abbey and Ashton Inman, two of the Lady Hornets' senior stars.

"I told the other girls, 'Look, this is going to be hard for them. I can only imagine how hard it is for y'all,' " Allard said. "With me being here for a whole season, it helped [Abbey and Ashton] just be soccer players.

"Their coach had died, their mom had died, but they knew that I was going to take care of what their mom built and they didn't have to be the lone advocate for it."

Bryant is 6-1-1 in 6A-Central play with wins in six of its last seven games.

The Lady Hornets have given up just three goals all season, anchored by the senior tandem of defender Abbey Inman and goalie Addison Funk.

Their steady play at the back, combined with an offense that's scoring 2.6 goals per game, has alleviated some of Allard's early nerves.

"The seniors have done a great job pulling in the younger girls and loving on them, and I think that's really given us the ability to create something special," Allard said.

BATESVILLE BOYS

Still perfect

Several teams in Arkansas remain unbeaten through a month and a half of the season.

Only one team, however, has won all of its games.

That would be the Batesville boys, who are 12-0-0 going into arguably their most important game of the regular season tonight when the Pioneers travel to Jonesboro.

Coach TJ Stroud had high expectations for this group as he always does -- Batesville has made 13 consecutive trips to the postseason -- yet he was unaware of the Pioneers' rare position as they head into the final weeks of April.

"We always strive to play for a conference championship," Stroud said, "and we've tried to push our goals past making the playoffs. But now we're trying to play for a state championship."

In Stroud's previous 14 years at the helm, Batesville has gotten as far as the state semifinals when the Pioneers lost to Harrison in 2019.

But that was as a Class 4A team, and Batesville understood its task would be that much greater playing in Class 5A.

So far, the Pioneers have proven more than capable, winning home games against Searcy and Jonesboro, the other two top sides in the 5A-East.

Stroud points to senior goalie J.P. Morgan, who's set to play just down the road at Lyon College next year, as the Pioneers' linchpin.

"There are a lot of programs where it's hard to get somebody to play those positions (goalkeeper and defense), where you don't get as much glory," Stroud said. "And I think their experience -- moving into this new conference even though it was going to be something that was a lot more difficult -- they've been a part of the grind, so they understand what it takes for a long season."

This Batesville team hasn't had to scrap too much as the Pioneers have not trailed at any point this season.

Stroud knows full well this team craves something bigger than regular-season victories.

"If something were to happen and we were in a tough spot, [I want to see] how we'd react," Stroud said. "Do we have enough fight in our bellies to finish what we've started?

"For us to put our program where we want to be ... [Jonesboro and Searcy] are the types of programs that we have to beat. And we don't want those first two [wins] to be a fluke."

PULASKI ACADEMY GIRLS

Tradition and youth

The Pulaski Academy girls soccer program has won six state titles this century, but not one has come under Chris Owen.

The Lady Bruins reached the Class 4A state final two years ago. None of their 11 freshmen were a part of that team.

They all -- Owen included -- understand the tradition that comes with being a part of Pulaski Academy. But there's a benefit to not carrying the burden of the past.

"What I've said is that it's up to them with how far they want to go," Owen said. "When we talk about losing a few finals, we talk about taking it as an experience and trying to do better the next time."

The Lady Bruins go 21 deep, yet there's just one player left from the 2018 team that lost to Little Rock Christian in that year's Class 5A final. And there are only a handful of juniors who experienced the 2019 title game defeat to Harrison.

Combine the lack of scar tissue with this year's results -- a 3-0 shutout of 12-1 Valley View, a 2-2 draw against Class 6A Conway and a 1-0 win against 8-2 Little Rock Christian -- and it's not hard to see why Owen is optimistic.

It helps to have a goalkeeper who's conceded three goals through 10 games in freshman Leighton Meador.

Mea, with shutouts in six of Pulaski Academy's last seven games, has led the Lady Bruins to a 9-0-1 start with wins in its first two 4A-East games.

"All of us, players and coaches, are excited that she's settled in," Owen said.

While racking up wins headed into May feels good, Owen wants his players to push one another to get the Lady Bruins over that proverbial line.

"Having 21 [girls], we just play games against one another and try to make it competitive that way," Owen said. "Nobody's guaranteed to play ... and everybody wants to start, so we have numbers [to battle it out]."

CORRECTION: Freshman Leighton Meador is the goalie for the Pulaski Academy girls soccer team. A previous version of this story included an incorrect spelling of her name.

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