JONESBORO — Jonesboro emerged as one of the state’s best Class 5A girls’ soccer teams in J.D. Williams’ first season as head coach.

The Lady Hurricane, which missed the state tournament two years ago, finished second in the 5A-East conference to eventual state champion Searcy while dropping just three regular-season contests. Jonesboro won its state tournament opener, advancing in state competition for the first time since 2014 before bowing out with a hard-fought loss in the quarterfinals.

“A lot of different factors play into that, but we were really proud with what we were able to do and how we were able to help the program grow and build for the future,” said Williams, the Coach of the Year on the Best Under The Sun girls’ soccer team. “My seniors understood that, they understood that we weren’t exactly where we needed to be at that moment to go out and be dominant all the way to the state title their senior year, but they bought into it and we started to build.”

Jonesboro finished the season with a 14-4-1 record. Two losses came against 5A champion Searcy, which allowed only three goals all season, and the other was a 2-1 setback against 4A power Valley View. The tie came at Greene County Tech.

The Lady Hurricane slipped past Sylvan Hills 3-2 in overtime in the first round of the state tournament, earning their first state tournament victory since 2014 on sophomore standout Yajaira Alvarado’s golden goal. Alvarado was sidelined by an injury during Jonesboro’s quarterfinal match with Greenbrier and the Lady Panthers scored in the second half for a 1-0 victory.

Williams said his approach included more set pieces, offensively and defensively, and the Lady Hurricane changed formations as the season progressed.

“I think coming in with a different philosophy, a different game plan as far as tactics go and how I wanted to use the squad, I think that helped them,” Williams said. “Not necessarily that it was any better or worse than what they did before, but they had to buy in to be successful and they saw that and learned it. We were able to use that to our advantage and they enjoyed it.”

Williams, also an assistant football coach at MacArthur Junioar High, had previous experience coaching soccer as a boys’ assistant in his hometown of Warren.

When Williams was a student at Warren, soccer wasn’t among the sports offered by the Bradley County school. His interest in the game dates to his college years at Texas A&M Texarkana.

“I didn’t play organized soccer, it wasn’t something we were privy to growing up,” Williams said. “As I got into college, I started becoming a fan of it more than anything else, picked it up and played with some friends, never anything truly organized. I just kind of fell in love with the sport, started paying more attention to professional and collegiate soccer.

“As a coach, I’m a tactical person. I was a coach before I started coaching soccer. I was a football coach, still am, but using that mindset and wanting to understand how things work really led into me diving deep into soccer and understanding why there’s so much to love about it. It’s not quite as stop and go as most American sports. It’s more about establishing a plan, a philosophy, and multiple different ways to do things, and you go play.”

Alvarado led the Lady Hurricane with 46 goals and 14 assists. Junior center-mid Ayesha Samiuddin finished with 14 assists and was the on-field team leader, Williams said, while junior forward Krisselle Nwokeji added 20 goals and nine assists.

Williams said Samiuddin and sophomore center-mid Brianna Pacheco were the main reasons why the Lady Hurricane completed 68 percent of its passes in the midfield and kept nine clean sheets in 2021.

The Lady Hurricane will return nine starters in 2022, Williams said, including three who earned all-state honors.

“We did have a few seniors and only one of them had ever been to a state tournament before,” Williams said. “I think them getting to experience the team having that success and to finally be in a situation where they felt like they were going to be able to succeed going into every match, understanding that we can win, was big.

“There was never a time where we didn’t feel like we could win, even when we played the state champions twice this year. We went into the match anticipating that we were going to be able to beat them, and I think that was a big part of their experience.”