By Rick Atkinson

For the Anna-Melissa Tribune

ANNA - Last season, in head coach Marlon Madrigal’s first year at Anna, the Lady Coyotes got to 10 wins and back to the playoffs after a one-year absence. Finishing 2-4-2 in district play, Anna lost a narrow decision to Gainesville for the district’s No. 3 playoff seed before falling to top-seeded Carrollton Ranchview in the bi-district round.

“It was a stepping stone,” Madrigal said recently at Anna High School. “It was the start of something different for this program. We were making the ship go the right way. There were a lot of things that needed to be fixed, a lot of mindsets that needed to be changed. That’s still going on right now.”

Noteworthy is the fact that this season will be first time these seniors will not have a new head coach. Madrigal’s two most recent predecessors left after one year.

“It’s a big change,” Madrigal said, “and there’s one excuse they can’t use this year. It’s the same voice. Everyone should be on the correct path now. … We have three seniors this year and all they talk about to the other kids is how much different it is from the other years they’ve been here, and how much better and more cohesive we have been as a team. They know what I expect from them.”

Madrigal instituted a tough conditioning program upon his arrival last year. “What it involved a lot was competing,” he said. “We compete in everything we do. The older ones, the ones that already went through it, have embraced teaching the other ones how this is going to be from now on. … The physical part is always going to be as tough as I can make it. They just needed to understand.”

Lost to graduation from last year’s squad are First-Team forward Abi Cisneros, First-Team middle defender Lauren Schlicht and Second-Team All-District forward Kaitlynn Perry.

“It’s a humongous hole,” Madrigal said this trio’s departure. “What they brought was a lot of experience. I think all three were at least three-year starters. But at the same time, the losses are something we’ve used to understand where we need to be. … Those three were amazing kids. We appreciate everything they did.”

A key returning starter for Anna is certainly sophomore Payton Wickliffe, last season’s District Goalkeeper of the Year. “She is one of those kids that have bought in,” Madrigal said. “She’s one that sees what the potential of this team, and herself, is. … I expect even more from her. She’s got that potential. She’s got that attitude and mindset.”

“She’s very vocal and she owns that box. She doesn’t let anybody take anything from her. One thing that has gotten better are her feet. She is covering more ground this year. Pretty much, we are building the team around what she can help us with. You’ve got to use what is given to you, and they gave me a pretty amazing goalie.”

Madrigal will look to freshman Macie Deaver as Wickliffe’s back-up. “She is pretty much the one that will go get anything. She is non-stop. She will go through a wall for me, and I’m scared to actually ask her to because she might do it, literally. She’s learning and she does a great job.”

At the attack end, Madrigal notes the play of senior Kaitlynn Long first. “She has improved 110-percent from last year,” he said. “Her movement without the ball has been amazing to watch. She’s always at the right spot, which is half the battle with goal-scorers. She’s going to surprise some people.” Senior Catie Chavez and junior Priscilla Chacon also return up-top where Madrigal says they have shown much improvement. Newcomer freshman Mariah Gonzalez will be a versatile addition to the front row as well.

In the midfield, senior Second-Team All-District pick Krista Valdez will factor big for Anna.

“She controls the ball,” Madrigal said. “She’s pretty much the engine of the team. As soon as she gets it, things start rolling toward the other team’s side. Her ball skills are amazing. And she is a vocal leader now. She really stepped out of her comfort zone this year.”

Joining Valdez will be junior Crystal Badillo, whom Madrigal calls “our defensive-minded midfielder. She’ll try to clean up everything she can from the middle. We’ve been working a lot on her passing and hopefully that becomes a strength. She’s worked hard enough to get to that point.”

On the back row, the Lady Coyotes are young. “I have [two] freshmen playing the back line,” Madrigal noted, “so we’ll have to lean on Payton on that one and hopefully they’ll do the right thing. There’ll be mistakes and that’s OK.”

These promising freshmen defenders are Layla Lagemen and Dalia Villa, both center backs. They’ll look to vocal returning sophomore Jacinda Johnstone for leadership. “Jacinda is one of the one’s that’s going to have to step up even more,” Madrigal said. “She did an amazing job as freshman. She did everything correctly and was amazing in her decision-making when there was pressure. I guess that’s something that you’re born with.”

As for what this team’s strengths will be, Madrigal pointed to his midfielders and forwards. “I did not think that was going to be it at first. I literally said, ‘We’re going to play back. We’re going to have to work with Payton. Make sure we don’t get scored on. But by the little bit I’ve seen … I think we can keep possession and we can attack. And if we need to we have enough ‘want to’ to counterattack instead.”

Madrigal spoke at length of this team’s closeness, on and off the field.

“We are stuck together,” he said, noting that several players come by his classroom to have lunch – and that’s just one example of the “night-and-day” change from last year. “Last year’s group was still tentative,” Madrigal recalled. “They were like, ‘Oh, you’re probably leaving again.’ But this year, I think they’ve kind of figured out I have nothing better to do. So they know I’m going to stay.”

Team members have also become closer through helping each other through some painful personal experiences, he said. “It’s been tough because I’ve had to steer from real-world stuff to soccer. I’m like, ‘Guys, soccer matters, yes, but I care about y’all.’ … We should care about each other, not just as teammates.”

Madrigal said this closeness could well translate on to the playing field. “Hopefully, it’s tangible. But if it’s not, then at least we care about each other.”

These Lady Coyotes’ goal, Madrigal said, is to “be better than last year,” adding that can mean anything from being a better teammate, to being respectful on the field – to finishing better than fourth in district. “And that could mean more than we think it means. I tell them, ‘Let’s be crazy and think all these things could happen.’”

Madrigal predicts another “dog fight” in District 9-4A, noting Melissa’s run to last season’s state tournament and Celina going three rounds-deep in the playoffs. “And it was hard to beat [last-place] Bonham last year,” he added.

The Lady Coyotes’ season starts Friday versus Paris at the Kennedale tournament. Their district-opener is Feb. 10 at Melissa.