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Eighth-grader finds spot in SA soccer defense


Starkville Academy eighth-grader Anna McKell has fit into her team's defense.

Starkville Academy eighth-grader Anna McKell has fit into her team's defense.


David Miller



STARKVILLE -- There are certain elements a quality central defender must have to be successful.  


As the heartbeat of a team''s defense, center backs must be aggressive and pass the ball well. They have to communicate with midfield players, other defenders and their goalkeeper.  


All of those "musts" factor into a central defender''s primary objective: keep the center of the field air-tight.  


These responsibilities at the varsity level rarely fall on the shoulders of an eighth-grader, but Starkville Academy''s Anna McKell has handled her role well in her first season as a full-time starter.  


When the Lady Vols opened preseason training, new head coach Robert Gardner had to replace a senior-led back-line. The only certainty in defense was goalkeeper Garland Willcutt, who had two years of starting experience entering. 


Gardner had few experienced defenders with which to work, but he knew he had a potential dynamo in McKell, whose height and athleticism complemented her solid skill-set.  


"She''s athletic, and that''s part of it, but you could see how comfortable she was on the ball in training," Gardner said. "She makes good decisions and is growing as a player with each game. She''s only going to get better." 


SA''s back four features a senior, a freshman, a sophomore and McKell, whom Gardner said didn''t take long to establish a spot in the starting 11. 


He recalled how timid McKell played in SA''s games against Memphis-area teams St. Agnes and St. George''s -- Tennessee state champions a year ago. The Lady Vols lost both games -- their second and third matches of the season -- but Gardner believes the experience helped McKell evolve at her position.  


"I think you have to be brave to be a central defender," Gardner said. "You can''t sit back and wait for the game to come to you. You''ve got to be forceful, demanding and look to be a presence. With Anna, that''s something she does well." 


Playing behind seniors helps a player''s maturation process, and McKell values the tutelage she received as a seventh-grader just looking for minutes. 


"I was the only seventh-grader last year, but I feel like I learned a lot," McKell said. "They taught me to always get he ball up, don''t try to play with it back there and never pass it to the middle. Always get the ball outside and step forward when the ball''s played. That''s all stuff I''m putting to use this year." 


In the Lady Vols'' 9-0 win over Heritage Academy on Thursday, McKell had the chance to log minutes at forward and spend nearly the entire second half resting on the sidelines.  


SA (8-6, 7-2 Class AAA), which clinched a playoff spot by locking up second place in AAA North, hosts Jackson Academy on Monday.  


Gardner is keen to see his defense turn in a performance similar to what it produced in SA''s recent 3-1 extra-time loss to Pillow Academy. Gardner lauded that performance as his team''s best of the season, noting excellent communication between his defenders.  


McKell said the communication with fellow center back Nora Kathryn Hardin, who scored a goal Thursday, is the best it''s been all season.  


"If we need a trail somebody is there for us," McKell said. "If we need a supporting pass, we have it because we''re communicating. We know where each other is on the field and we''re organized. Me and Nora Kathryn played a little bit together last year, but in our first year playing full-time together we''ve improved." 


NOTES: Jessica Dennis recorded a hat-trick, while Payton Allen, Tiffany Huddleston, Bailey Clark, Jessica Tranum and Tiffany Evans each scored a goal in SA''s win over Heritage.



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