BY ZACK KLEMME
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
A culturally resonant 1969 television commercial first asked how difficult it is to reach the center of a Tootsie Pop. Russell’s girls soccer team applied the same philosophy this fall in search of a similarly sweet outcome.
“We had to take our licks to really kind of learn from the season,” coach John Perry said Sunday, “and I think now that the season has come to fruition, we’ve reached our goal of what we wanted to do with the scheduling.”
The Lady Devils played four matches against teams from traditionally soccer-strong central and northern Kentucky. Russell didn’t win any of them, but the payoff comes tonight when the Lady Devils compete in the Semi-State 8 round of the state tournament at 14th Region champion Perry County Central.
“We set a goal early: we knew the whole season was in preparation for the postseason,” Perry said. “That’s when the games matter.”
And that’s when the Lady Devils turned it up.
Since dropping their final three regular-season contests to stand 6-9 entering the district tournament, Russell has gone 3-0, including a region semifinal avenging of a 7-2 loss to East Carter in the last game of the regular season.
The Lady Devils handled the Lady Raiders, 5-1, to reach the region final, where Russell bested Rowan County, 4-0, in Flatwoods.
That earned the Lady Devils a trip 120 miles south-southwest to East Perry Elementary School, where the Lady Commodores’ home field sits.
Perry County Central (13-10-1) awaits as back-to- back 14th Region titlist. The Lady Commodores needed double overtime to escape Hazard in the 53rd District semifinals, fell to Letcher County Central 4-2 in the district title game, then rebounded to top Powell County in overtime in the region semifinals.
Perry County Central beat Estill County, 2-0, in the finals.
Taylor Noble leads five Lady Commodores in double figures in goals with 22. Joining her are Alyssa Daniels (14), Kelly Arredondo (11), Vada Miller (10) and Sydnie Minks (10).
Russell doesn’t know a whole lot else about its opponent tonight. Perry did receive counsel from Prestonsburg coach Paul Burchett, whose Lady Blackcats topped Perry County Central 5-0 on Oct. 3.
“They won their region just like we did. We gotta prepare as such,” Perry said.
The Lady Devils counter with three players in double figures — Kynidee Allen (16 goals), Taylor Stamper (13, including two in the region final) and Kylie Busick (12).
Georgia Arrington has 14 assists after collecting three against the Lady Vikings. Callen Johnson owns 12 helpers.
One extra wrinkle: Perry County Central’s field has artificial turf, an uncommon sight in northeastern Kentucky. Russell practiced Sunday on Kentucky Christian’s turf to try to get the hang of how the ball bounces.
Perry sees the Lady Devils (9-9) being able to hang athletically on a typically faster turf field, as well as play a possession- based game.
“We’ll still be able to play both styles,” he said. “If we get breakouts, we’ll be able to catch up to the ball; if we need to control the ball, I think our girls definitely have enough skill to do that all over the field too. I think it’ll play more to our advantage than our detriment playing on turf.”
Perry County Central coach Kevin Whitman knows the challenge Russell presents, but called the Lady Commodores a veteran and resilient bunch.
“I feel like we will have to play at our best in order to stay in the game with Russell, but I expect my team will give it their best effort,” Whitman said Sunday. “It is an honor to be one of the final 16 teams still playing, and I am sure our opponents feel the same.”
Indeed Russell does, but its sights are set beyond tonight, too — as in, a possible fourth trip in five years to the state tournament round of eight.
“It’s really just been a team goal to make sure that we get back to Lexington, whether it’s just to the Elite Eight or we move forward,” Perry said. “We’re always looking to take that next step.”
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