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File / The Herald Elmore County’s Raney Jones led the Panthers with 19 goals and added five assists during the 2019 season.

After going winless in 2018, the Elmore County girls soccer team was staring down another disappointing season after just five matches. The Panthers were 0-5 and had not scored a goal yet while being outscored by a total of 21 goals.

However, when Chilton County came to town, the team knew it had an opportunity to turn the season around and Raney Jones was right there to lead the way. Jones scored her first four goals of the season in an 8-0 victory, kickstarting a 19-goal campaign for Jones and leading the Panthers to seven wins in their final 12 games. Jones is the Elmore County Girls Soccer Player of the Year.

“I’ve known her for years so I knew she was going to be that good,” ECHS coach Angie Simmons said. “But she needed that game to build her confidence and to really show everyone else how good she could be. During that win, we actually pulled her back but she kept asking to go in because she wanted more goals.”

It did not take long for the rest of the team and any of Elmore County’s opponents to realize what Jones was capable of. Jones either scored or assisted on more than half the Panthers’ goals this season, averaging 1.4 goals responsible for per match.

Jones played a key role in avenging some of the team’s losses early in the season, including two against county opponents. After losing the first meeting 4-0, Jones scored two goals in a 4-1 win against Wetumpka. She also had two assists and converted her penalty kick during the shootout in a 3-2 win over Holtville.

“She played a huge role in that turnaround,” Simmons said. “Everyone was comfortable when she was on the field anywhere. They wanted her out there and they wanted to get her the ball. She meant a lot to us this year.”

Despite being an eighth grader, Jones has already played two seasons at the varsity level. Elmore County had seven seniors on its roster but Jones was often looked to as a leader on the field because of the way she played the game.

“They really respected her and what she could do,” Simmons said. “She’s the girl everyone wanted on their side during practices or scrimmages. Sometimes I think she feels too young to have a voice but we know that’s going to change because this team needs her knowledge of the game.”

Elmore County preferred to use Jones on the wing because it helped the team spread out more during the attack, according to Simmons. Jones often deployed on the left side but she was used in several positions throughout the season and her versatility helped the Panthers.

“It gave us a lot of flexibility,” Simmons said. “We got to try some things we wanted to test out and she gave us the opportunity to see how younger players would fit in at different places. She could fill a hole anywhere on the field.”

While Jones continues to work on her game during the offseason with travel ball, she still has four years of high school soccer to play and Simmons knows there is a lot of potential in the young star. Simmons said her work ethic has always been there but dialing it down on the field may benefit her and the Panthers in the long run.

“She has to realize she has 10 other teammates she doesn’t always have to carry,” Simmons said. “She’s definitely not a ball hog or anything but she’s a competitor so she moves to wherever on the field she thinks she can help the team. But I think we can all learn to not rely on her too much and let her play a natural position to help her and the team be better.”

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.