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Gardner inherits young Starkville Academy team


David Miller



STARKVILLE -- As Starkville Academy''s third head coach in the last three seasons, Robert Gardner has the attacking tools to make the Lady Volunteers a postseason threat.  


But will defense and youth be too much to overcome? 


One year removed from a Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA playoff berth, the Lady Volunteers are unsettled on who''ll man the back line. 


Also, the team has just one senior (Shelby Carpenter), and no juniors.  


But for Gardner, who led the Center Hill High School boys to the North State final last season, his inaugural season at SA is shaping up to be a success.  


The six-year coaching veteran put the team through a week of two-a-days, opting for a.m. fitness training and p.m. team training. The response, especially with daily heat advisories, has been positive, Gardner said. 


"We''ve gotten a lot out of it and, in my opinion, we''re already ahead of where I thought we would be," Gardner said. "They''ve shown me a lot during training and they work hard for each other. You can see the chemistry already." 


Attacking options appear abundant, as target forward Sallie Kate Richardson, versatile winger Payton Allen and midfielder Tiffany Huddleston offer speed, ballhandling, and a nose for goal.  


Huddleston and Allen are sophomores, but have started the past two seasons, while Richardson, a freshman, started as a central striker for last year''s playoff team. 


Gardner said the team will play a 4-4-2 system, with Huddleston anchoring midfield and Richardson and Allen as the primary options up top.  


"With my passing and assisting and (Richardson''s) speed, power, and scoring ability we make a good team up front," Allen said. "I expect a lot of successful runs this year." 


Gardner, much like his predecessors, has a talisman in Huddleston, who has been one of MAIS'' top players the past two years. She has operated out wide, at forward, and in central midfield where Gardner will rely on her to win possession and to link what will be a young and untested backline.  


"Tiffany holds the ball well and always plays with her head up, looking to find teammates and create chances," Gardner said. "We had a session where that was all she did. She had three or four assists in 15 minutes, and she''s going to be the engine in midfield for us." 


Huddleston''s effectiveness going forward will make for an exciting attack, but with the Lady Volunteers expected to play with a flat back four, Huddleston could find herself in more of a defensive role.  


Starkville Academy lost center backs Bradley Booth and Michelle Padget and defensive midfielder Anne Claire Craig. Gardner believes he has found replacements in eighth-grader Anna McKell and freshman Nora Kathryn Carroll, but he remains unsettled on the team''s outside backs.  


"Defensively, we''re a little open right now. And even though it''s an area of concern, I think we''re going to stick with four across the back," Gardner said. "That may change in different game situations, but we''ll work to keep those four structured and organized and take our chances to score whenever we can. We don''t want to give up anything silly." 


The one defensive certainty is goalkeeper Garland Willcutt, who has started each of the past two seasons.  


Another issue could be cohesion in the midst of changing systems and coaches for the third straight year. It has been a challenge, Allen said, but she doesn''t think it will affect the team''s play. 


"Each coach has had a different coaching style and approach, so it has been a challenge to adapt to the new coaches," Allen said, "but I think we have learned different things from each coach that we can use to improve as a team. The new coach is so encouraging to everyone on the team, and he really knows how to keep the team going, even during conditioning." 


Gardner''s assistant, former Mississippi State midfielder Katelyn Graben, will provide extra tutelage to the strikers and midfielders, which will allow Gardner to re-tool the back four and to identify the two starting outside backs.  


"Having Katelyn on board, our practices are so much more organized and things are very fluid," Gardner said. "Everything we''ve talked about and wanted to work on these first two weeks, they''ve met and exceeded. We''ve been able to accomplish a lot that with me by myself, I wouldn''t have been able to do so. Katelyn''s been a true blessing." 


Starkville Academy will open the season Aug. 12 at home against Washington School. 



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