With only two seniors, Payson’s girls soccer team is young.
So the Longhorns need leadership.
And they’ve been getting it from Savannah Grassel.
The senior has tried to show her younger teammates that soccer should be fun, even if the team is struggling to win games.
“She’s able to work with other players and communicate,” said head coach Trae Dunman. “She likes to have fun. I mean she’s really relaxed. She likes to just enjoy the game of soccer. And that’s what I’m looking for in players.
“It’s showing them that you don’t have to be stressed out to be good at soccer, to enjoy the game. You can just relax; have some fun. She loosens up the team; makes them laugh, enjoy the game instead of being stressed out all the time.”
Stress is understandable for players on a team that carried a 2-16-1 record into Thursday’s season finale against Chino Valley.
Payson has struggled to score goals. The Longhorns have been shut out 14 times. But the defense has been a strong suit. The Horns have held opponents to two goals or fewer eight times and four goals or fewer 12 times.
Limiting goals is something the defender takes pride in. As sweeper, she’s the last line of defense in front of junior goalkeeper Ali Tenney.
“It’s like an honor,” she said of playing sweeper. “It is a leadership role and your team has to depend on you and you have to kind of prove yourself and be there for your team. So I just like taking on that challenge; having my team depend on me.”
There’s a reason she’s playing sweeper, according to Dunman.
“Savannah’s one of our top defenders,” the coach said. “She’s been a key player. We had a game where we missed her and we could see we were missing some gaps. So next year she’s going to be a hard person to replace.”
The four-year varsity letter-winner has loved soccer since she began playing AYSO as a 4-year-old in Wisconsin.
“Soccer’s just kind of always been my thing,” she said. “It’s just something I’m really dedicated to.”
Although she’s one of the team’s most experienced players, she’s always looking to improve.
“She’s always willing to accept help and always asking for help, seeing if she can change something to make herself better,” Dunman said. “She’s pretty good at what she does, but if you notice something she might need to change she accepts criticism very well. She’s able to change things.”
This is her second season as a team captain.
“I just thought getting in a leadership position would be really good to try to help our team,” she said. “I want to see this program go far.”
She’d love to play on the offensive end, too, but said she’s satisfied in her role because she knows it’s important for the team to have a strong sweeper.
“I love shooting and stuff,” she said. “But I feel like I need to be back there to help keep people from scoring goals on us.”
The Longhorns had been more competitive in her first three varsity seasons. So her final season has been difficult at times.
“My freshman year the team made it to playoffs for state,” she said. “My sophomore and junior years we had pretty decent years, but we kind of just missed the playoffs. But this year’s been really different. Last year we lost nine of our seniors. So it’s been kind of rough this year getting new girls.
“It’s pretty frustrating because I’m like most athletes. I like winning. But I love the sport and that’s really what brings me out here. My heart is in the game. It’s just been part of my life for so long that I can’t picture giving it up. I just have so much fun out here. It’s fun just being active.”
And a losing record doesn’t mean there haven’t been positives.
“It’s turned out pretty well,” she said. “All of the girls are really dedicated and willing to try new things and work on stuff. So, yeah, it’s been a losing season, but it’s been like a good build up year for the program.”
She’s a natural leader.
“I like taking on that leadership role,” she said. “I love that bond you make with your team. Myself and the other captains always tell our girls, ‘you go out there you give it your all and play with all your heart and we’ll be happy,’” she said. “And that’s all we ask of our team is just give it everything and, if you did that, win or lose, we’ll be satisfied with the game. The games where our girls come out there with everything they have and lose, yeah, it’s still a loss, but you feel good about it.”
Maybe she’ll wind up as a soccer coach someday. But that will have to wait. She has other plans in the near future. Her grade-point average is higher than 4.0 because she takes advanced placement classes. She hopes to earn an academic scholarship to Arizona State where she wants to study biological sciences with an eye on a medical career.
Her brother is a student at ASU’s Barrett Honors College. She hopes to follow in his footsteps. The 2012 PHS graduate was also a team captain on the boys soccer team.
“He’s really been a role model for my entire life,” she said. “I really look up to him because he’s been a really good influence in my life.”
Savannah is the daughter of Beverly and Scott Grassel.