Tift soccer debuts Thursday against Lee

GiGi Elizalde will be one of the returning Tift County Lady Devils to the lineup this year. Boys and girls will play their first game of the season Thursday afternoon at home.

TIFTON — Spring sports have officially begun at Tift County High School. Soccer gets started Thursday night with Lee County coming in for a 5:30 p.m. start.

The calendar does still read January, but the weather will be warmish for the shorts- and short-sleeves-clad Tift players, a balmy — by January standards — high of 62 degrees. Saturday, however, might see players dodging rain. Tift County has set up a pair of alumni games against former players, girls at 2 p.m. and boys at 4 p.m.

Bobby Earls said his Blue Devils have had some really good days of practice after tryouts commenced earlier this month. He said they have something to prove this season.

Tift’s boys were the No. 4 team from Region 1-AAAAAAA in 2019, carrying a 1-5 record into state. Three of those losses, he said, were on penalty kicks. Thus, his team is out to “prove that we’re not No. 4.”

The Devils have big shoes to fill at some positions. Goalkeeper Rosendo Ramirez has graduated and gone north for football at Middle Tennessee. Paco Ventura had some game experience at the position last year. Earls said Jaylen Bryant is also competing for the position.

Similarly, Tift lost much experience at forward, with only Cris Banda returning.

On the defensive side, Earls said much faith was going to be in a sophomore-heavy group. Lance Martinez, one of the few veterans, is “expected to hold down the fort.”

Earls predicted three of his sophomores, Beto Aguirre, Jayden Arzola (nicknamed “Bronx”) and RaJae Milkins were make a big impact.

There will be diversity on the offense for Zac Martin’s Lady Devils. It is by necessity; Maggie Clark graduated. “Last year, we were very one-sided,” he said about how the ball was getting into the net. “We’ll be much more balanced.”

Even with Clark’s absence, Tift will be very experienced. Martin said he has 12 seniors on the roster. “A large majority of the girls have been playing together a long time,” he said.

Some of those expected to contribute on offense are Alexandria Heard, Caroline Vickers, Ansley Bassett, Lupe Osorio and GiGi Elizalde.

Chayla Lopez will be the defensive leader. Morgen Ray is back in goal. Martin called her “one of the toughest individuals I’ve ever met.”

The Lady Devils finished second in Region 1 last year and fell in the first round of the state tournament to Roswell.

For those averse to colder weather, Tift County has eight matches scheduled for February. “We’re heavy on the front end,” said Martin. He hopes that pays off later, as other schools will be in the thick of a schedule while the Blue Devils are on a much easier pace.

The last match of the year is slated for April 16. In the month leading up to it, Tift has six matches, four at home.

In addition to the pacing, Tift will have a few closer opponents this time around. They still have their annual Atlanta jaunt, but will play nearby Warner Robins and Northside. Fitzgerald will also be coming in on Feb. 13.

Saturday’s alumni game will not have a traditional admission. Martin said fans can make a donation at the gate to the soccer program, such as water or Gatorade.

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