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By STAN CALDWELL / Herald Correspondent
HATTIESBURG – It is no secret that the key to success in collegiate soccer is getting enough talented international players to make a difference.
Indeed, peruse the roster of any college team at any level, and you see players from all over the world – Europe, Asia, Africa, and South and Central America.
And William Carey University is no different. Both the Crusaders and Lady Crusaders have contacts overseas that allows them to scout and recruit players from other countries to come to the Hattiesburg campus and compete.
However, Carey hasn’t forgotten its roots, and this season, the women’s program is getting a big contribution from several girls who cut their soccer-playing teeth right here in Hattiesburg.
“We obviously want to recruit Hattiesburg first, then Mississippi second,” said longtime WCU women’s coach Danny Owens.
“We’re always looking for good local talent. We’re heavily involved in the local community, the local club here, so we’re keeping our eye on the local kids.”
Three players from the Pine Belt have stepped forward and made their presence felt for the Lady Crusaders.
Sophomores Lauren Jones and Cameron Chancellor, both from Hattiesburg, and junior Chloe Strickland, from Leakesville, have made the adjustment to the high level exhibited by the international players and are getting significant playing time.
But the process hasn’t always been easy.
“I was very intimidated when I first got here,” said Strickland, a graduate of Greene County High School.
“I got here, and I was all panicky and my confidence wasn’t where it was supposed to be, because the level was so good. And coming out of high school, I wasn’t there yet.”
Owens saw something in Strickland that he liked and urged her to be patient through her first two seasons at Carey.
“Chloe came in and had to sit for two years behind two All-America players, and she worked hard every day to get better,” said Owens. “We just kept telling her that her time was going to come, and she responded.
“We rely heavily on her now as a leader in the back and as a leader on the team.”
Carey came into this week’s play at 10-2-1, including a 6-0 record in Southern States Athletic Conference play.
The Lady Crusaders two losses came early in the season to ninth-ranked Southeastern (Fla.), and sixth-ranked defending national champion Tennessee Southern, and the tie came against top-ranked Keiser (Fla.)
Strickland has started eight games at right fullback, and has scored a pair of goals on just eight shots. She has also anchored a back line that has allowed 15 goals in 13 games, and 10 of those came in the team’s two defeats and its tie.
“About halfway through my second season, I got the opportunity to start,” said Strickland. “I think I started, maybe eight games, just because my confidence picked up.”
Jones and Chancellor had similar reactions to their first encounter with the demanding level of play required to get playing time at Carey.
“I was really nervous the whole first three months I was here, just because I’m not used to that level; I’ve only ever played with American girls my age,” said Chancellor, who played her high school soccer at Presbyterian Christian High School in Hattiesburg.
“At the beginning of this season, I started enjoying it a little better, because I got more comfortable with the other girls. Really, it’s just been since the start of this year that I’ve really felt like I belong here.”
Jones grew up with the Carey program and had been around the foreign players, so the intimidation factor wasn’t as prevalent. For her, joining an international melting pot was the exciting part of her first season at Carey.
“I grew up coming to all the games,” said Jones, who prepped at Sacred Heart High School. “I was the ball girl for several years, like you see out at the games here; that was me.
“Everyone on the team is amazing. Everyone brings something different. So, yes, it’s intimidating, but it’s also a great opportunity to be able to play with so many really talented girls from so many different places and different cultures.”
To be sure, there are a lot of different places represented on the Lady Crusaders’ roster. In all, Carey roster includes players from Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, Mexico, Germany, Sweden, Finland and England.
In addition to the trio from the Pine Belt, the Lady Crusaders feature two other girls from Mississippi, senior Alexis Arnoult from Gulfport and junior Alyssia Davis, from Brandon, as well as four other American players, from Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Nebraska.
“Everyone on the team was always very encouraging and even still super encouraging,” said Jones. “We’re like a family, and that’s why I believe I belong.”
The common denominator for the Pine Belt trio was playing in the Select program at the Hattiesburg Futbol Club, which was established in 1980 to promote the game, and to identify and develop players in South Mississippi.
Owens serves as executive director for the HFC and WCU assistant coach Ryan Weir is the girls director for the program.
“Danny and Ryan were both my coaches at HFC, so I kind of grew up in the program, grew up with them and I trusted them,” said Jones.
For Strickland, playing with HFC was critical, as the Greene County program did not have a lot of talent during her years as a Lady Wildcat.
“The program wasn’t what the program at Carey was,” said Strickland. “The level wasn’t as good, and while everyone played hard and gave it their best, we didn’t have a lot of talent on the team. But I played with HFC, and Ryan was my coach, so that’s how I got recruited.”
Owens said the club is a big part of his recruiting process, because it allows him and Weir a chance to scout girls from all over the region in one location.
“We recruit the local girls the same as any player,” said Owens. “We want good character kids first. We usually know the girls personally. And, then, can they help us with what we’re trying to achieve.
“I’d say the club program is more important than high school; the talent level is higher across the board.”
Although Jones and Chancellor have yet to crack the starting lineup, Carey’s dominance in conference play has allowed them extensive time on the field. Chancellor has appeared in nine games as a defender, and Jones has participated in 11 contests as a midfielder.
Jones has scored three goals on 15 shots and has two assists. Two of her goals came in a 7-0 rout of Blue Mountain on September 24.
“It was amazing,” said Jones. “It was so rewarding to have all my hard work pay off, and hearing all my teammates cheering for me. It was a great feeling.”
Carey played a non-conference game at Georgia Gwinnett College on Wednesday, then completes the regular season with a pair of road games, Saturday at Mobile and next Thursday at Talladega.
After that, it’s the SSAC Tournament, beginning November 2 at Montgomery, Alabama, in which the Lady Crusaders are the defending champions. It was the eighth tournament title in Owens’ 18 seasons as head coach.
“Winning never gets old; you never get tired of it,” said Jones, who was on several state championship teams at Sacred Heart. “It’s amazing to come in here and continue to win.”