ANNA – After one year as varsity assistant coach for Anna Lady Coyotes softball – and what a year it was – Jennifer Sluder has now assumed head coaching duties of said talented squad. Former Anna head coach Lindsey Gage, who had just led Anna to its first-ever state-tournament berth, departed southward for Class 6A Ridge Point last month.

Sluder is no stranger to head coaching. She led Class 3A Pottsboro for four years before coming to Anna, turning around a struggling Lady Cardinals’ program with three-straight playoff appearances as the No. 2 seed from District 9-3A. Pottsboro claimed two bi-district titles and an area title during her tenure.

“I’ve known Coach Gage for a while,” Sluder said on July 8 at Anna High School. “We’d been friends. She happened to call me … and asked if I’d come over and be an assistant. I said, ‘I’ll only be an assistant for you.’”

And the rest is, as some might say, Purple Reign history.

“Crazy, crazy,” is how Sluder describes the Lady Coyotes’ 2019 run to the Class 4A state championship game after a 2-8 district mark the season prior. “No one ever thought we would make it that far,” she said, “and I think that’s what makes it better. Those girls just kept pushing through and kept fighting, finding ways to make it happen.

“It was new to them. There wasn’t ever any pressure put on them because I don’t think they realized the importance of where they were - not that they didn’t think it was important. I think that was crucial for us. … And they were very humble. They weren’t overconfident, they weren’t cocky. They were like, ‘Hey, let’s just play and see what happens, and be us.’”

The challenge for Sluder now will be dealing with higher expectations - and perhaps no longer being able surprise some teams. After all, the Lady Coyotes made quite a splash in 2019. And though the team returns all but one player from last season – that player was a key cog in the team’s operation: starting pitcher Hannah Howell, who graduated in May.

“No. 1, there’s a lot of pressure and big shoes for me to fill because of Coach Gage,” Sluder said. “I’m hoping people realize the situation. I believe 100-percent that the girls can do it again. I feel like our defense is pretty solid. Even if we have a pitcher that can just throw strikes and they put the ball in play, I have enough confidence in our defense to take care of it. We’re going to make those routine plays and we’re going to get ourselves out of tough situations. But we did lose our pitcher.”

Sluder played softball for Grayson College before graduating from Texas Woman’s University in Denton.

Her first coaching and teaching job was at then-Class 1A Collinsville in 2006, when she was an assistant coach for the Lady Pirates’ state championship volleyball team. That same year, Sluder was also an assistant coach for Collinsville’s state runner-up softball team. She later moved up to head softball coach there before an assistant /interim head coaching stint at then-Class 4A Little Elm. Her last stop before Pottsboro was then-Class 2A Howe, where she was the Lady Bulldogs’ head softball and volleyball coach for two seasons.

When Sluder arrived at Anna, she said Gage mentioned hitting as a team weakness in years past and felt Sluder might help address that. Indeed, timely hits - and defense - were hallmarks of Anna’s historic run to Austin this year.

And having two-head-coaches’-worth of experience on the field - both having played college ball - likely helped the team as well. “I felt we were more efficient on our reps,” Sluder said. “I feel like the girls got in more work just because [Gage] could trust me to take the girls and we could go do our thing. She wouldn’t have to worry about what we were doing because she trusted me enough as a head coach to do that.”

“We’re excited to have Coach Sluder as our head softball coach,” Anna girls athletic coordinator Tomika Crosby said. “I have no doubt she’s going to continue to move what is already a successful program to new heights. Coach Sluder has a great relationship with the girls and the parents, making it a smooth transition for all. We know she will do well.”

Sluder said she’ll live by same creed preached by Gage: “We may get beat by a better team but we’re not going to be out-worked.”

“It’s really hard to get to the state tournament. It was hard for us to get there last year and it’s going to be even harder to get there next year. I think the kids are up for that challenge. They work hard and I think the transition of me coming from … assistant coach and going into the head coaching role, they already trust me enough. And [assistant] Coach [Jacqueline] Rosson, they trust her.”

Also joining Sluder’s staff will be first-year assistant coach Kristen Massey, now a graduate student at Austin College.

“I think I’m going to continue what we’ve done,” Sluder said. “I think our team chemistry is important. To me, that’s one of the most important things. Communication is important and hard work is important. … We’re going to work hard no matter what, every day at practice. There was never a day that we took off at practice [last season].”

A graduate of Whitesboro High School, Sluder lives in Whitesboro with her husband, Toby Sluder, the head coach of WHS boys basketball for the past 16 years. The couple has three kids — a daughter who’ll be a senior this fall, an eighth-grade son and a fourth-grade daughter.