By Ronn Rowland
Phoenix Sports Writer
David Saunders’ first love is soccer, or the term he’s more familiar with – football.
The native of Exeter, England is in his first year teaching Algebra I and coaching the boys soccer team at Hilldale High School. How he got to Muskogee from London is one of love and devotion.
“I’m married to a lady from Tulsa,” he said. “We got married and lived in England for nine years. We came over here in August and bought a house in Muskogee.”
The new coach brings a lifetime of experience as both a player and a coach, or manager as it is referred to in his homeland.
“Growing up with a football at my feet in England, I’ve always played soccer at high school, college, university and then I was a manager. I’m a high school teacher so I’ve always managed soccer teams over there. Then I ran a Christian adult soccer team for 10 years in Exeter.”
Saunders takes over a squad that is peppered with experience and youth, both up front and in the back.
“My captain, Christian Arnold, is a senior and plays back and he’s a very strong player,” Saunders said. “He’s my sweeper and then I’ve got a couple of good lads at midfield in sophomore Bailey James, who plays club ball in Tulsa, and junior Brian Martinez.
“One player to watch out for is Hunter Woods who’s very quick. He’s very good at listening and I think has learned quite a lot from me.”
One person that Saunders is very grateful to helping him adjust to his new home is former Hilldale boys coach and current girls coach Brent Breckon.
“He’s been fantastic,” Saunders said. “He’s shown me the ropes. He built a really strong program for two years and now it’s allowed him to work with the girls team. Now I can offer my experience and different formations from the UK.”
The team has shown Saunders they’re as excited to play for him and expand their knowledge of the intricacies of the game.
“They’re all listening and willing to learn,” he said. “And they’re listening hard because they’re trying to understand my accent. Based on what I’ve seen, I’ve got a very hard working squad who will be very competitive.”
FGHS girls want to
go one rung further
The Lady Tigers are looking to build off the success of the 2013 team that advanced to the Class 4A championship match, losing to now three-time defending championship Verdigris in the final.
“We reached a level that had never been reached before,” said Fort Gibson coach Jaime Snyder. “We don’t have the mentality of being a one-shot wonder. We have the mentality of if we did it last year, we can do it again.”
Fort Gibson lost five starters because of graduation from last year’s team but have plenty returning that will make the Lady Tigers just as formidable an opponent as they were in 2013, including the top two scorers from last year in Brooke Benham and Jordan Raynor, the 2013 All-Phoenix Player of the Year.
“We also have Gabby Escamillia (Newcomer of the Year), Shaye Hatchette, Sanya Januszewski and Shelby Nichols returning,” Snyder said. “Right now in goal we’ve got a battle going for goalkeeper between sophomore Jayme Hayes and senior Breanna Moore. Mainly it’s because Jayme is still in basketball so I really can’t make that decision quite yet.”
The strength of the last year’s team was speed and that is once again the strength of this team.
“We lost some very good foot-skill players but our speed is still back,” Snyder said. “So I think that will be our biggest advantage. And these girls have played together for a long time between club ball and school ball.”
While some coaches try not to compare one year to another, for Snyder it is inevitable.
“Like it or not, we do compare where we are this year as to this time last year,” she said. “They’re two different teams, of course, with different players. But our preparation is the same. I feel like these girls have a different mentality and believe they are the team to beat.”
Other teams to watch
Fort Gibson boys
The Tigers fell one game short of the girls team, losing in the Class 4A semifinals to Santa Fe South.
Leading the Tigers will be forward Zach Cobler, the 2013 Offensive Player of the Year, who finished with 12 goals and seven assists, and goalkeeper Daniel Mielnik, the Defensive Player of the Year.
The Lady Bulldogs look to challenge Fort Gibson for supremacy in the area. Wagoner fell to the Lady Tigers in the first round of the playoffs after ousting Fort Gibson in 2012 postseason.
The Tigers were ousted by Tulsa East Central in the opening round of last year’s Class 5A playoffs but have plenty of ammo to make a deeper run in this year’s postseason.