The players gathered around their coach, Peter Eschrig, each taking a ball as they prepared to hear a few words of instruction and then dribble through a lap around the field. Then after brief stretching, they went through drills with young and veteran players alike challenging each other.
Everybody was on point and focused even the seventh- and eighth-graders although they did take time to laugh a little along the way, even drawing some smiles from Eschrig.
This is what a playoff soccer team looks like. And it’s not how Donoho always looked.
Four seniors Ali Morris, Katherine Westbrook, Marissa Davis and Mallory Landen have remained with the program every step of the way, and they remember how it used to be. They were seventh-graders six years ago when the program began, winning one match in its first season.
Now, as seniors, Donoho has recorded a school-record 12 wins. The Lady Falcons won Class 1A-4A, Area 10 for the first time. They’re making their second straight appearance in the state playoffs, but when they face Childersburg today at 5 p.m., they’ll host a postseason contest for the first time.
“When we started in seventh grade, we weren’t very good,” Morris said. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in this. We’ve come a long way.”
Three of the four seniors Morris, Westbrook and Landen have played soccer together ever since they first lined up in recreation leagues when they were six. Davis joined the group in seventh grade, although the other three say their bond is so strong they feel like she’s been there all along, too.
They said they didn’t think much about the potential of the Donoho program when they were seventh-graders. They just wanted to win a match or two. Back then, the losses piled up.
That wore on the four seniors, although they didn’t walk away.
“All the losses were worth it. It was all worth it,” Davis said. “It was worth it to have what we have now.”
They said the program began moving forward four years ago when Esching began coaching the squad. He coached Cullman’s boys to a state title and two runner-up crowns before retiring from public schools.
He now is at Donoho, and the four seniors say he pumped some excitement into the team.
“He’s dedicated,” Westbrook said, “and he truly loves soccer.”
Davis joked the team is hard on him. “We’re girls,” the four said almost simultaneously.
“But we love him, though,” Westbrook added.
After Eschrig took over the team and the players grew and gained experience, some of the teams that used to blow out Donoho no longer found the Lady Falcons easy pickings.
Landen said a big moment came two years ago when they faced Jacksonville, a girls soccer power. Jacksonville won 1-0, but Landen said the scores often used to be 10-0, with the game ending because of the mercy rule.
In addition, they turned the tide against Westbrook Christian, another rival.
“It’s like everything switched,” Landen said.
The first playoff berth came last year, although Donoho wound up losing at Guntersville 10-0.
The season will end one way or another in the next two weeks. The state championship game is May 11, and either on that day or before, the four seniors will see their soccer careers end. That’s going to be a tough moment.
“I’m really going to be sad,” Westbrook said, with the other three seniors voicing their agreement. “I’m definitely going to shed a few tears.”
But they’ll leave behind something much different from what they had as seventh graders. Landen said they can see the program has a foundation. Eschrig said that of the 19 players on the team, six are seventh-graders, including two starters. Also, five are eighth-graders, including three starters.
“We’ve seen them improve so much,” Landen said. “They’ve got goals they’re trying to achieve. We didn’t have goals when we were seventh-graders.
“We’ve helped set the bar high. I can’t wait to see what they’re like when they’re seniors.”
Contact Anniston Star Sports Editor Mark Edwards at 256-235-2370 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @MarkSportsStar