February 3, 2018 10:30:08 PM
CALEDONIA -- Shelbi Box and AC Parish cringed prior to the start of the season when their friends asked them about the prospects for the 2017-18 Caledonia High School girls soccer team.
With new coach Louis Alexander and plenty of youth, Box didn't have high hopes.
"Our first game, we all knew we were fixin' to lose every game," Box said. "We were negative. We didn't think we were going to win at all."
Now, though, Box, a junior, and Parish, a senior, and the rest of the squad believe.
A undefeated run through district play and a three-game winning streak to end the regular season has Caledonia playing some of its best soccer. The timing is perfect because Caledonia's first-place finish in Class 4A, Region 3 has earned it a home playoff game against Senatobia at 6 p.m. Monday in the first round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) State tournament.
"We're ready for Senatobia," Box said. "This is a special team that is going to get us far this season."
Parish said Alexander, who replaced Jason Forrester, told them everything was going to be different, so she said the players expected changes. Still, she admitted it has been "shocking" the way everything has changed. The adjustments included multiple position switches and a move from a direct style of play -- in which the team plays the ball forward and runs on to it -- to a possession brand of soccer -- in which the Lady Confederates attempt to keep the ball and string passes together.
Alexander said it is "night and day" from how the team looked at the start of the season to today.
Parish, who is co-captain with Box, said she feels she is in a better position (defensive midfielder last season to attacking midfielder this season) and that the Lady Confederates can work better together.
Box, who is a center back, agrees things have clicked because Alexander, who she called "the best coach I have ever had," has shown the players the game from a different perspective and explained how they can make it work.
Initially, there were growing pains. Alexander said he had to stop practices every 10 seconds in an effort to make the players understand the importance of moving without the ball. He also stressed the Lady Confederates couldn't be behind defenders and that they had to work to gain possession and to hold off their defenders.
"I enjoy watching it, but the best part was watching them do it and enjoy it while they're doing it," Alexander said. "That was the fun part. That was the rewarding part."
Parish and Box said the Lady Confederates have embraced those notions as well as the need to be louder on the field. Last season, they said the players were quiet and didn't communicate. Now, though, Parish said fans have told her Caledonia is the loudest team they have seen. That communication is especially important for Box, who anchors the defense with goalkeeper Kaydence Sudduth and backs Blair Wood, Bridgett Jones, Savannah Anderson, and Megan Rodriguez.
As part of the transformation, Box said the players no longer say "Lady Feds" when they break a huddle. She said they say "family" because the group has become louder, stronger, and more confident together.
"He knew what he was doing," Box said of Alexander. "He knows everything. We all came in here thinking, 'He doesn't know where we play. We're not going to do good.' He watched us. He knew what positions to put us in, even when we didn't believe in ourselves.
"Before, we didn't have team chemistry. From day one, he told us it is all about family."
The result has been an attractive style of play that helped Caledonia outscore region rivals 26-2 in the last three matches and 51-5 in all six games.
Alexander said matches early in the season against New Albany, Starkville, and Amory, which account for six of the team's losses, helped prepare them for region action.
"We are playing a really good style of soccer, and it is surprising to a lot of people," Parish said. "They don't expect us to be playing like we are playing."
Said Box, "Everybody thought we weren't going to be good because of the style of play we played last year."
In addition to stringing passes together, the Lady Feds are finishing each other's sentences. Parish chimes in to add to Box's comments by saying, "We're settling balls and stringing passes together."
Parish and Box said the ability to adapt to a new system has given the players a new sense of purpose. She said connecting on five- or seven-straight passes fuels the Lady Confederates to set higher goals.
Looking back, Alexander said it's a credit to the players for all of their hard work
"We're playing the best soccer we have played all year," Alexander said. "We're playing attractive, fun, good-looking soccer."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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