ALBURNETT — Ron Slagle has been pleasantly surprised by the fight in his girls’ soccer team.
Despite graduating nine seniors from a squad that got within a match of reaching its first state tournament, the only coach in the five-year history of the Cedar Valley Christian/Alburnett program has directed another winner.
“I have been involved in high school athletics for 14 years,” Slagle said. “This is the best program I have ever been around. It is because of the kids. … They are believing in each other, they are believing in themselves and they believe in the better whole as a group, as well.”
Last season, Cedar Valley Christian/Alburnett won 14 matches, spent time in the Class 1A top-15 rankings and reached a 1A regional final for the first time. Despite the significant graduation losses, the roster has actually expanded to 28 players this season, which includes athletes from both high schools, Isaac Newton Christian Academy and home-schooled students.
“They are finding out it is fun,” said Slagle, a veteran of the United States Air Force and police corporal with the Marion Police Department. “It is fun to compete. You are in high school one time. Go enjoy it. Winning and losing will happen in life. Learn from losses.”
After an 0-2 start to its season, CVC/Alburnett has won five of its last seven matches behind senior defender Riley Blackford, junior midfielder Bailey Neighbor (team-high three assists) and senior forward Elizabeth Sperfslage (team-high three goals).
Blackford has been a starter for four years and credits the coaching tandem of Slagle and wife Bambi with constructing an accessible, inclusive and responsive environment that fosters teamwork and growth in players both new and experienced.
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“It is amazing,” said Blackford, an Alburnett student and Mount Mercy signee. “It is unlike any other team I have been a part of. They create this nice, warm, welcoming environment. As a freshman, I came in, you know I’m like, ‘Uh, I don’t know if I want to do this,’ even after playing soccer for so long. But they came in and welcomed me with open arms. They just encourage everybody. It could be your first year playing and they are going to put you on the field and you are going to figure out where to go and they are just going to encourage you along the way.”
Slagle and CVC/Alburnett — once the new team on the block in the area girls’ soccer landscape — have been able to provide a bit of encouragement this season to a pair of first-year programs at Tipton and West Branch.
The CVC/Alburnett junior-varsity squad played the Tipton varsity rookies on April 26, then faced off against the West Branch varsity players on May 6.
“It is a process, just like life,” Slagle said of starting a new program. “Stay true, work hard and it will all come together.”
With three children in college, the Slagles have announced that this will be their final season coaching the team. They made the announcement early with the hope a good fit could be identified by both schools to continue the program.
“Everybody has a role,” said Slagle, who also stepped down as CVC girls’ basketball coach after 10 seasons. “I was born 51 years ago and now I have a role to play and I am going to try to do the best job I can throughout life, whatever that role is.”
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