January 21, 2014 9:56:58 AM
Mark Box wanted to see for himself.
As a first-year head coach, Box spent some of his first practices with the Caledonia High School boys soccer team moving players to different positions to see if he could find the best fit.
Chandler Lester didn't mind. Growing up, Lester had played various positions before finding a home on defense, but the junior realized his new coach needed to get a feel for what everyone could do.
Many of the Confederates already knew what Lester could do. That's why they didn't hesitate to talk to Box and tell him that Lester was a really strong defensive player at the high school and club soccer level and they felt he would be best suited to remain in that position.
Box, who considers himself to be a "pretty open" coach when it comes to listening to his players, welcomed the input.
"It was a smart move (keeping Lester on defense)," Box said. "It makes me look good."
The decision to keep Lester as a defensive midfielder has been one of the biggest reasons for Caledonia's success this season. Last week, Caledonia defeated Amory 5-0 in a Class 4A, District 2 match to clinch a spot in the Mississippi High School Activities Association North State playoffs next week. Lester's performance in that victory and a 4-0 win against West Lowndes on Saturday earned him The Dispatch's Prep Player of the Week honor.
"Amory has a really tall kid who is a striker," Box said. "He and my other defensive back Dylan Southard just shut him down. It was mainly Chandler. They really shut that kid down. He is about 6-foot-3 and has a real long stride and breakaway speed. Anytime the ball got close Chandler picked it off or cleared it out."
A year ago, Lester was the youngster surrounded by seniors on defense. This year, he is the lone upperclassman in a defensive formation that is made up of sophomores. Lester hasn't shied away from the responsibility of leading the unit. He credits his cross country and track and field background for giving him the confidence he can track down any player at any time.
"I don't try to overdo it and be the boss. I just do my part and if someone is doing something wrong I tell them nicely," Lester said when asked if he feels he is a quarterback on the field. "I feel more comfortable. I started last year as a sophomore with three other seniors and I knew this year I would have to step up, so I have done that."
Last November, Lester finished second in Class 4A state meet at Choctaw Trails in Jackson with a time of 17 minutes, 18.7 seconds on the 5-Kilometer course. His finish helped Caledonia place sixth in the team competition. Last season, he also placed fourth in the 3,200 (11:00.58) at the Class 4A state meet.
Lester has been playing soccer since he was 6 years old and running since he was in eighth grade. He said cross country and track and field have helped build his endurance to the point he feels he never gets tired. Still, he said he has learned not to get overconfident because he is in such strong shape.
"I try never to just rely on speed because (some players) are fast, so I just have to be smart about it and not come up too far and get in position on everything and be smart about it," Lester said.
The more Box saw Lester play, the more he realized the junior had strong foot skills and was going to be a key to the team's defense. Aside from missing the first match of the season to run at the state cross country meet and another match in December to run in a Junior Olympics meet in San Antonio, Box said Lester has provided the leadership and poise the Confederates need in the back.
"He is in ungodly shape," Box said. "He can runs for days."
Box feels the players' willingness to accept roles has helped the team rebound from last season when it didn't advance to the playoffs. He said Will Rollins, who played forward and has moved back to fullback, is just one player who has flourished in another position.
Caledonia (8-2, 4-1 district) will close the regular season with matches against New Hope (today), West Point (Thursday), and Itawamba Agricultural (Friday).
"Most of the kids understand about doing what is really best for the team," Box said. "(Chandler) said he would do whatever I need to do to help the team. That has been the kind of mentality and one of the reasons we have been successful. We have a pretty good team atmosphere out here."
Lester agrees. At 5-9, 145 pounds, he knows he isn't the biggest player on the field, so he has to rely on positioning and speed to help him and the Confederates work out of trouble. He said it helps that he is surrounded by players who are equally skilled and pretty quick, too. It remains to be seen which player is the fastest, but Lester said that isn't important because the Confederates are working toward one goal.
"We have been playing together and communicating, so we haven't had many problems and having been playing really good together," Lester said. "I think we feel more confident. We know we can go far. We just have to play our best every time."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.