Back in 2015, Benjamin Russell girls soccer coach Lee Wagoner already knew what he had coming. He was coaching both the varsity and JV squads and saw the camaraderie the seventh-grade girls were showing at that time.
Fast forward several years and those same girls were now seniors, and Wagoner had the highest of expectations.
“I saw a lot of qualities in them that were similar to that 2015 team,” Wagoner said. “They were friends off the field, they truly enjoyed the game and I knew then we could make another run when they were seniors. I started building around them back then, then of course we hit our stride this year.”
The Wildcats won several games in a row before things were cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Wagoner saw those hopes slip away.
“It was such a heartbreak for us to see our girls hit our stride and doing what we knew we could do,” Wagoner said. “To have it cut short, especially for this close-knit group of girls, it was really hard.”
The six Benjamin Russell seniors played various roles. Some played when they were as young as middle schoolers and others finally got their opportunities to be starters this year, but regardless of the role, they were all important pieces to the puzzle.
Lydia Ballard moved up to the varsity level when was she was in eighth grade and she played several positions for the Wildcats. After starting in an outside back position, Ballard moved into the midfield and really started to flourish.
“As the years went by, we could tell that (defense) was not her natural position,” Wagoner said. “She filled that role tremendously when it had to be done, but when we moved her into the center mid role, she thrived throughout. She controlled the field, got the girls lined up and read the game so well. The biggest thing was her vocalness.”
Another regular starter since being in eighth grade was Makenzie Davis.
“She was able to play several different positions and she had very good control,” Wagoner said. “She saw the game really well and she developed into that attacking center mid role and became that playmaker over the years. She always brought a great attitude to practice.”
Davis was also a key member of the volleyball team and was named the All-Outlook Volleyball Player of the Year in 2019.
Due to an injury, Caroline Yearkey missed some time as a freshman but she worked her way back into top former.
“She knew speed was not her forte, but I would play her at an outside back position and she read the game so well,” Wagoner said. “She would shut down whatever side of the field she was defending. She was able to take out the No. 1 attacker for the other team just because of her physicality.”
Despite not playing this year, Lillie Wilson was still a vital member of the senior class and she was an extremely diverse player. Whatever role Wagoner needed her in, Wilson could easily fill it.
“She was a very versatile player on both offense and defense,” Wagoner said. “Especially some of those battles with Opelika, it was Lillie’s role to play man on man with their top player, and I give her a lot of credit as to why we kept those games so close.”
The final two seniors, Camryn Benefield and Michael Ann Wellborn, both were role players until this year. They filled in with good substitute minutes during their first few years on varsity but finally got a chance to be starters this year.
“This was Camryn’s year,” Wagoner said. “She played in the outside back role and she took that role and just excelled with it. She became a starter from Game 1 and she played huge minutes for us.
“Michael Ann is another one that had to wait, but she was great in the center of the field. She is the only player I had that could really truly use both feet extremely well. Most players are one-foot dominant, but she was extremely good at playing with both feet. She was also the mother of the team; she really brought everybody together. That’s what I’ll remember most about her.”
Likely the best attribute of this senior class was its adaptability. Wagoner threw a ton of different formation changes at the girls throughout the years, and they never once wavered to their commitment to the game.
“I’ve always taken the approach as a coach that I have to adapt and fit the personnel we have,” Wagoner said. “These girls have always welcomed it and been willing to learn. They asked questions when they didn’t understand something, and they put their nose to the ground and just grinded.”