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Aiken steps up to lead Rebels soccer team
Tara Aiken
Tara Aiken - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff

By Donald Heath

Special for the Effingham Herald

SPRINGFIELD – Players are often asked to step up in times of need.

But in a strange twist, weeks before the official start of soccer practice, math teacher and yearbook editor Tara Aiken stepped up for the Effingham County girls and filled a void in the coaching staff.

“Sometimes I’m scared that I don’t know what I don’t know,” said Aiken, who took over on an interim basis for coach Wade Wright. “I’m not a soccer expert by any means, but I know the sport and I spent my Christmas break studying the stuff I don’t know.”

Aiken said she was approached to lead the program Dec. 17, 2021. In accordance with Georgia High School Association regulations, soccer practice could start Jan. 3. The Rebels have a scrimmage Thursday against Southeast Bulloch and open the season Jan. 25 against Savannah Arts, an 11-win team last spring.

ECHS athletic director Matt Huntley said he didn’t expect the coaching search to continue within weeks of the start of the season. Head coaches must work in the school district to be hired.

“I think Wade had more responsibilities at his school (Encompass Academy in Rincon) and he wanted to step down after the (2021) season,” Huntley said. “A lot of our teaching positions were filled. We held a search and had some ideas but nothing panned out.

“We’ve seen what Tara does at school so we’re confident she can do a good job. She’s going to put the time and effort in.”

Aiken, whose daughter Shelby plays soccer and softball, already has a game plan.

Last season, the Rebels were besieged by injuries so Aiken increased her roster size from 17 to 21 after tryouts. And ECHS practices now emphasize stretching in warmups.

Aiken said she’s searched the Internet to find practice drills and will draw from knowledge in her inner circles. Her friend Julie Montgomery, the mother of Rebel player Ardyn Montgomery, is an assistant coach at Effingham United – a premier under-17 girls soccer program.

At a nearby practice field, ECHS boys coach Austin Czachowski is available for ideas.

“If I’m going to do something, I’m going to try to do it right,” said Aiken, who coached softball for three years in middle school and was a cheerleading coach for four years. She’s coached her children’s recreation teams.

So far, she hasn’t been overwhelmed coaching varsity. She’s inheriting a squad that finished 8-7 last season, placed fourth in Region 2-AAAAAA and advanced to state.

Aiken has a strong returning nucleus that includes several girls from Effingham United along with highly regarded goalie Dayanara Figueroa, who started last season as a freshman.

“I told the girls with the scrimmage and two non-region games (Savannah Arts and Metter to start the season), we’re going to have to find where everyone fits in,” Aiken said. “We have a lot of juniors and seniors coming back and a few new girls who are going to add a lot. We have a good core.”

And with increased organization and effort, Aiken will try to overcome her limited experience with Xs and Os.

“I’m trying to learn as much as possible,” she said. “My goal is to make it the best for (the players). I don’t want them to have a crummy year because of the situation.”