Accomplished head coach takes over girls soccer program


William Randall

First-year head girls soccer coach Blair Barksdale examines the field during a scrimmage against Heritage on Jan. 29. The Knights lost 2-0.

Cole Parker

With the 2021 girls soccer season underway, first-year head coach Blair Barksdale is eager to show what her experience and coaching philosophies can do for the team.

Growing up in Conyers, soccer was always close to Barksdale’s heart.

“I have played my whole life,” Barksdale said. “I played high school, and it was probably one of the best experiences with regard to making lifelong friendships and just learning life skills, like overcoming, persevering — just building character.”

After graduating from Rockdale County High School, Barksdale continued to pursue soccer and discovered her inclination to coach at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.

“In college, I took a soccer coaching course because I had always loved the sport and wanted to still be involved in it,” Barksdale said.

Fresh out of college, Barksdale returned to her hometown and began as the assistant coach at Heritage High School. After six years, she became the head coach, a role that Barksdale held for three years. In both 2017 and 2019, she was named Region Coach of the Year. In 2019, Barksdale also led the Patriots to a State Playoffs Final Four appearance and was named Rockdale/Newton Citizen newspaper’s Coach of the Year.

Barksdale said that her open-minded coaching style that incorporates the players more directly helped the team excel.

“Over the years, I have looked more to the players for suggestions concerning in-game changes that need to be made,” Barksdale said. “I encourage an open line of communication where they feel comfortable coming to me and sharing their thoughts. I often give what they say a shot, and if it doesn’t work, then we can always adjust.”

Former Heritage player Gracie Wilson, who holds the school’s single-season goals record, reflects on her relationship with Barksdale.

“For me personally as a player, I love coaches that I can go to to just share my ideas, who are really receptive,” Wilson said. “You don’t have to agree with what I have to say, but it was just so nice to feel her as a player on the field because, obviously, there are different perspectives of the game.”

After becoming so attached to the Patriots, it was hard for Barksdale to part ways with Heritage.

“It was very difficult,” Barksdale said. “In Rockdale County, we can have eighth-graders play; so, you watch some of them play for a really long time. You build relationships with them, and they’re such great players; so, it was a tough decision to leave.”

The Grady team that Barksdale now leads lost multiple All-Region players last season to graduation, including Kaitlin Palaian, Emily Schulz and Kiki Soto. Despite that, Barksdale thinks that the Knights will remain competitive.

“All of them caught my eye,” Barksdale said. “We’re low on numbers this year, but the talent is off the charts. I would rather have a small number of girls who are really excited than having a large group that may just be out there for the little fun of it, not really wanting to work and win.”

The team has a recent influx of talent after the disbandment of the US Soccer Development Academy (DA). Several of the new players on the team played for DA last year.

“There used to be a rule where DA players weren’t allowed to play high school,” junior player Daphne Porges said. “But now that DA is gone, they can; so, that’s exciting.”

The former DA players that recently joined the team have brought a lot to the table, according to senior captain Samantha Huray.

“They have significantly added to the talent of the team,” Huray said. “We lost some good girls, but their addition to the team has made that transition not as big a deal as I thought it was going to be.”

Barksdale has already started to make a name for herself with the players.

“She is very good at communicating with us,” Huray said. “[Senior] Elise [Isakov] and I are captains; so, we have that direct line with her. I always know what’s going on, and I can relay that to the team. Originally, she talked to each girl individually, and was like, ‘This is what I expect of you. This is where I see you.’ It’s evident that she knows what she is talking about. We trust her and her decisions, and I definitely respect her.”

In the long run, Barksdale plans to transform the program.

“My hopes and goals would be to build the program, see it grow in numbers, and make it a shining light of the school — something that people want to be involved in,” Barksdale said.