SUMRALL – For most teams, losing six seniors that made a second-round playoff appearance would make for quite a headache to replace.
In addition to the loss of a successful senior class, the Sumrall girls' soccer team had to find a way to replace Caragan Childs, who in four years scored 141 goals.
However, the loss of Childs and the other members of last season's team for Sumrall meant having to insert as many as six middle schoolers into their starting lineup. While for most programs, that would signal a likely painful rebuild year, for the Lady Bobcats it has been the exact opposite.
Sumrall has dominated teams and has won its district for the fifth consecutive season with a 5-0 win over North Pike on Thursday night and has posted 14-4 record on the season.
According to Sumrall coach Todd Siders, the discussion of replacing Childs wasn't as much as from a statistical standpoint but rather finding a way to replace her from a leadership standpoint.
"I didn't expect one player to fill that kind of production," Siders said. "The important thing about Caragan is the voice she left, and you could see how great of a person and teammate she was. She really inspired those young seventh-graders last year, and now they feel confident to play well."
What has transpired is a triple-threat between eighth-graders Addie Siders and Rylee Kirkland and sophomore transfer Gabrielle Hernandez, who totaled a combined 47 goals and 26 assists.
"I knew our young talent was really good," Siders said. "I think at first (other teams) underestimated us, but then I think word had gotten out with how good we were. We have played some better teams and have gotten their best shots.
"Rylee has a lot of speed. I think she has the highest ceiling out of all of them. When she physically matures more, she has the chance to be the best players that this program has ever seen when she puts it all together. Addie is really physically mature for somebody her age. She plays at the highest level of club. She loves the game. She studies the game. She is blessed with a powerful right and left foot."
Addie, Todd's niece, scored two goals in Sumrall's win and leads the team with 20 goals. Addie believes the team's success stems from needing to replace Childs' impact and by being underestimated by other teams because of the Lady Bobcats' youth.
"Obviously, no one can replace Caragan," Addie said. "She is irreplaceable. We all said that we have to step up and that we all have a role now. We can't just depend on her. We all have to step up. I feel like we all have and that we have all played our best.
"We do get underestimated. We do have people say, 'Oh, they're seventh and eighth-graders. They don't have what it takes.' That just gives us more drive to go out play our game. I feel like it doesn't matter how old you are. You can always step up and be a leader. I feel like all of the young players have really stepped up and really done their job."
Hernandez, who has 19 goals on the year and also scored twice against North Pike, is just a sophomore but finds herself holding a leadership role that most seniors and juniors would have. According to Todd, Hernandez's natural leadership and production is another that has been crucial to the success of the season.
"We had that talk that we needed a leader to step," Todd said. "Gabby is one of those that is going to speak her mind. We have talked about it because those younger ones, I think, look up to (the older players) because of their soccer expertise. Sometimes as a leader, not everyone is going to love you all the time, and Gabby, I think, is good with that. She has a lot of natural leadership ability and has stepped into that role for us."
For Hernandez, while she finds herself in a leadership role, she gives credit to her younger teammates' maturity.
"A lot of the girls are mature," Hernandez said. "They know what discipline is needed and what the expectations are, and I just get to lead through that."
"I really appreciate them because they grow. They are starting young. Once they get older, they will already be developed by the time they are in their mid-years of high school. They will have the experience, and then for the younger ones coming in, they will know how to develop them by the time I'm gone or when the juniors are gone."
With one week left in the regular season, Sumrall will hope to build off its first-ever second-round playoff appearance from a year ago. For Todd, the difference in the team's postseason run's success will come down to his team's maturity.
"A lot of quality youth right now," Todd said. "We are learning how to be mentally tough right now. That's our next hurdle to overcome.
"I think we could play our last game in Jackson, and I think our last game could in the first round. It's all depending on how well we come out and play. We are going to play teams that are more physically mature. Can we handle that pressure? Can we move the ball the way we are capable of and put the ball in the back of the net? (If we do) we will be good, but we also have a team that is capable of losing in the first round. The message is being consistent and buying into the potential that this team has."