Alicia Benavides decided to attend the Meridian Community College Girls Team Camp after an invitation from her Ripley High School teammate Alex Rangel.

The three-day camp, which concluded Wednesday, pitted several local girls soccer teams against one another in various competitions, all while offering the opportunity for the girls to be coached by various junior college and college soccer coaches. For Benavides, a senior, the trip from Ripley to Meridian was more than worth it thanks to the experience she gained.

“I like being on the field, and the people here are really nice and make it fun,” Rangel said. “The coaches are also nice and supportive.”

MCC head soccer coach Mike Smith said the local teams in attendance were Clarkdale, Lamar and West Lauderdale, along with Bayou Academy (Cleveland) and an Alliance Futbol Club travel club from the Meridian Youth Soccer Organization. Individual attendees were placed on their own team as well.

“I think the biggest thing about this camp is bringing in these coaches from NCAA Division I, Division II, Division III and NAIA, and we also have some junior college coaches out here,” Smith said. “There are coaches from all different levels out here, and these local kids are getting to be coached by all of those different coaches, which is huge for soccer around here.”

The focus at the girls team camp is team-building, tactics, formations and strategy, which contrasts with next week’s youth camp, which is more focused on technique and beginner-level training. 

“The training is really good,” Benavides said. “They explain things really well, and it helps me both offense- and defense-wise. They have me playing right wing, and I normally play middle, so hopefully I can help my team a little more on both sides of the field (this winter).”

Clarkdale midfielder Mary Ashley Culpepper was on hand with her Lady Bulldog teammates this week and said she’s enjoyed the competition and the coaches. In particular, she said James Gledhill, assistant men’s soccer coach at Belhaven, provided some new ideas from a coaching standpoint.

“He’s a higher-level coach, so it’s cool to have that kind of coach working with you and getting their perspective on things,” Culpepper said. 

Gledhill said he’s been a friend of Smith’s for almost a decade and was more than willing to help out with this week’s camp.

“The fact that it’s a high school team camp really defines what we’re doing here,” Gledhill said. “Not only are we helping the kids with their soccer abilities, but also there has been plenty of team bonding activities.”

In addition to improving the attendees’ soccer skills, Gledhill said the goal is to also open doors for girls who might want to play soccer beyond the high school level.

“Whether you want to come to Belhaven or go to a different school, I’m always more than happy to try to help you move on,” Gledhill said. 

Having helped coach the teams for three days, Gledhill said he’s come away impressed with the overall skill level at the MCC camp.

“It’s a great group of girls,” Gledhill said. “As a coach for any sport, you always want to work with people who want to come out, get better and have a good attitude. It’s 100 degrees out here, and we’ve done three sessions a day, and never once have there been any kind of issues with these girls. The (skill) level has been high, but probably more importantly, the attitude and commitment to learning and getting better has been very high. It’s been very enjoyable.”

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