Sara Sanders has coached the Pinckneyville Middle School girls soccer team to back-to-back titles in the Futbol Classic, which crowns the Gwinnett County Public Schools’ middle school champion, in 2018 and 2019, the program’s first two seasons. She also led the boys team to the Futbol Classic title in 2018 and the championship game in 2019.
Sanders, who played wing for four seasons at Sandy Creek High School, also coaches club soccer for Atlanta Fire United. She is wrapping up her fourth year at Pinckneyville. In this edition of “Getting to Know...”, Sanders talks with staff correspondent Jerell Rushin about her playing career, working with middle-schoolers and more.
JR: Where did you grow up?
SS: I was born in Macon, Georgia, but I actually grew up in Fayette County. I attended school in Peachtree City, and I graduated from Sandy Creek in Tyrone, Georgia, a very small place.
JR: Did you play soccer?
SS: I did. I played since I was 5, and I played all through high school. I did get injured in high school, so I wasn’t able to play in college. So the highest level I could play after that was at Kennesaw State’s women’s club soccer.
JR: We have some club sports here at Georgia State, where I go to school. Where did y’all travel and play?
SS: I’m not sure if we ever played Georgia State. We played Emory, I know that, but I’m not sure of we ever played Georgia State. We didn’t when I was there at least. I only played one year there.
JR: What position did you play?
SS: I’m a wing, so I’m an offensive mid. So, I kind of just run the line.
JR: How were your teams back at Sandy Creek?
SS: We were pretty good. We were a 3A school until Hurricane Katrina, and then we were forced into 4A, 4A is where schools are just way bigger than us and had way more talent to choose from. So half of our team grew up playing and was very good. So when we got thrown into 4A, we struggled a bit. Other than that, we were high middle of the road. We weren’t the best, but we were better than the middle if that makes sense.
JR: What do you mean when you say before Hurricane Katrina?
SS: When Hurricane Katrina hit we had an influx of students come from Louisiana. And they all came kind of, no joke we had like 200 or 300 kids just move in within like two or three weeks, so we had this influx. And we already were kind of moving into 4A, so it pushed us into a 4A school.
JR: Who were some of the best coaches that you played under and why?
SS: I would definitely say Silvia Riet was my best coach. She actually coached me from seventh grade all the way through 12th grade. I think she was my best coach not only because she was obviously knowledgeable, she knew what she’s talking about. But she pushed you to be better, she knew what you could do even if you couldn’t see it yourself, and she would push you to be the person that she knew you could be. I would say it’s something I try to do with my own players. She actually came to my middle school, which is an hour and a half away, and she ran a session with my kids before our tournament. They were saying, ‘Oh my gosh, y’all are just alike.’ I’m like, ‘Well good. That’s who I want to be like. She’s awesome.’ We’re friends now because I’m older, but she’s definitely the best coach I’ve ever had.
JR: What ways are y’all similar?
SS: We both analyze our players on an extreme level to see what they have to work on, whether it’s their foot-skill or their touch or maybe they need to work on their left or their right, dominant and non-dominant. And she would see that and design things to make you do one drill different than everyone else because you needed to work on something else a little bit more than the person behind you. She was just super involved and it was something that growing up and when I got into coaching I was like, ‘That’s what I want to be like. I want to be like her.’
JR: Spending that extra time really does make the difference. Doing that with middle school kids, what is that like?
SS: I tell them they have to see me every single day, especially during the season and then on the weekends. They have to see me 3-4 hours during the school day, and then they have to see me on the weekends. I see them all the time and I’m their teacher, so it makes for a really good relationship. Our kids start out not knowing each other on the teams. I practice my boys and my girls together. So the sixth grade girls don’t know the eighth grade boys. By the end of the season, our eighth grade boys will see a sixth grade girl in the hallway and they’re waving at them. People around them are like, ‘How the heck do they know that guy?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, from the soccer team.’ They end up building relationships within the teams. We take them on team outings. We took our girls out to laser tag and had bubble teams. We go to the varsity and JV games at the high school that our middle school feeds into. Our kids volunteer to be ball kids. Then they get to meet the players that played for me in high school. Then we do alumni games. It’s worked really well.
JR: What high school do y’all feed into?
JR: How did the boys and girls practicing together come about?
SS: I’m the only coach, and I don’t have the time, working on my master’s, to separate the practices. I actually didn’t have the girls until last year. For two years, I had only a boys team. Then last year they opened up the Futbol Classic to where you can bring a girls team. I got them together. I had an assistant coach, but we didn’t have the time or space to separate them. It makes both teams better. The girls have to play more aggressive to keep up with the boys, and the boys have to think more to play against the girls. The girls play a possession game, so they’re thinking constantly, not saying boys don’t think but the girls think a little more when they play. It’s mutually beneficial for them to practice together at the age that they are right now.
JR: What were the boys’ reaction the first time they practiced with the girls?
SS: Last year out of all the girls, it wasn’t new for them because we never had a girls team. I only had five returning boys. It was only weird for five of them. I was like, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ As soon as the boys figured out how good our girls were, because they tend to think boys soccer is different and it’s fast-paced, I’ve got some girls who will bulldoze and smoke our boys, and that’s just how they are. So as soon as the boys figured that out, it worked out completely fine. For them, they trust them because they respect them and that was the big thing.
JR: How did the title game go this year?
SS: The boys game and girls final games were at the exact same time. The boys game started 30 minutes before, so I was actually in between both fields coaching the boys and you would see me going back-and-forth running between. I had two girls that played last year coach at the times I couldn’t be there for the girls. The girls both play at Norcross now. I had to trust them completely to coach the girls, so when I came over, we were losing. In the two years that we coached the girls, they have not lost a single game and only tied once. So to be losing going into half was crazy for them. I got over there and talked to them and changed a few things around. Within two minutes going back in, we tied it up, and then we scored again and we were up. It took probably the last five minutes or so we scored another goal, so we would be up 3-1. As soon as that kind of happened, it was one of those things I didn’t know who to choose in between. It was hard, so I just had to trust that Katie Moebes and Sara Stivers would be able to do well enough to coach them.
JR: They were ninth-graders coaching?
SS: They were actually the captains last year. We had nine returning girl players, so they already knew Katie and Sara. So it was really the sixth-graders that didn’t know them as well. The eighth-graders knew that if Katie and Sara told them to do something you were going to do it. If they didn’t want to do it you were going to do it. I mean they stepped up. They actually coached them one game before the final as well, and they did good. So I was really proud of them.
JR: Which of the titles was the sweetest?
SS: Probably last year. We practiced inside in a gym, and we still practice inside of a gym. Working inside of small spaces makes you better, but it was so many of them, and I didn’t think they thought that they were going to be good. I don’t know why they think that every year. The boys won first. And we actually ended up against our sister school, the other school that feeds into Norcross. Two of our starting players were hurt. I had a kid whose ankle was the size of a softball. I was like, ‘You really don’t need to play.’ He was like, ‘I don’t care. I’m going to play.’ I was like, ‘Okay, it’s your decision.’ He went out there. I had a defender that was hurt, too. They were defensive the entire time. We weren’t even looking to score. We were just trying make sure they couldn’t score. We went down to penalty kicks. A kid who’s never played goalie his entire life, we found out he was really good, just randomly in the middle of practice, who was our staring wing, the position that I played. We put him in the goal. He saved every single one of them. He saves three, and we made all three of ours. That’s how the boys won. They didn’t think they were going to win. They had to literally fight until the very last second to win. Our girls, it was their first year in general. They went in tied going into the half. Sara, one of the girls that coached this year, got so frustrated as a defender she just blasted the ball. I think it was out of anger, honestly. She just blasted the ball, she wasn’t even shooting. She ended up scoring the first goal from down by our goal. After that, everything just took off, and lit a fire under up under themselves. They ended up winning, too.
JR: That’s crazy stuff right there.
SS: We were going crazy when the boys and girls won. Then, they dumped the cooler on me. It was very cold. They dumped the cooler on me again this year too, but then one of the kids holding the cooler was short so the lid came and hit him in the head. You’ve got to be so much taller to hold it up.
JR: That’s true, they are in middle school.
SS: Some of them are big, but the other one was not. He was short.
JR: When was your first Gatorade bath?
SS: That was last year. That was the first one ever, and it was very cold. I wasn’t expecting it this year because the team didn’t win, and it was in the middle of the girls taking our picture with the trophy. Right when one of the parents walked over to the side the boys came over and poured it on me. I was very upset. Not really but I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ They were like, ‘Sorry.’