When Hayle Swinson was approached last year about starting the new girls’ soccer program at Bethlehem Christian Academy, she felt a familiar calling.
An Americus native and lifelong soccer player, Swinson was one of the top goalkeepers in the state as a teen and played for an Olympic development team in Georgia. But her life took a turn when she signed to play at the NCAA Division I level but then tore an Achilles’ tendon.
Swinson, who described herself as “lost” at the time, wound up at Truett McConnell University for what she thought was a temporary stay before jumping back into the Division I ranks. Instead, the small school in Cleveland became the place where “I gave my life to Jesus,” Swinson said, and the place where she helped build a strong soccer program — first as a player and later as an assistant coach, turning down an offer to professionally overseas in favor of remaining with her alma mater.
“That is where my journey took me and now I’m excited to have this opportunity,” said Swinson who was hired by BCA last fall to start the girls’ soccer program, which played its first-ever match Feb. 23. The Knights picked up their first-ever win March 8 over Briarwood Academy, 5-0, and were 1-4 entering their Tuesday, March 23 match against John Milledge Academy.
But in reality, the scoreboard results and overall record aren’t a main focal point for Swinson and assistant Shelby Folytn in the program’s inaugural year. Of the 19 players grades 9-12, none have varsity playing experience and only a couple came into the season with “a little bit of knowledge” about the sport, Swinson said.
“We’re still working on learning the basics, how to pass the ball well and all those things,” she said. “But the coolest part in my brain is I’m thinking beyond this year — because I got to be a part of building a college program and now I’m able to take a similar approach in building a foundation here. The early days aren’t always going to be fun, but these are the beginning stages of something bigger.”
Gracie Wall and Brooke Peevy are two players with soccer knowledge that the team looks up to, Swinson said, while she appointed Karis Corley and Grace Fort team co-captains for the leadership ability they have shown in the early going.
“They’ve never really played before, but I believe in them and I believe in their character and they are helping us,” Swinson said. “And so it’s hard to look at wins and losses this early — because, if you just look at a score line, you’re going to miss a lot of the ‘wins’ that happen on the field. We’re learning the game of soccer and the highlights for me are watching people start from the beginning. We didn’t know how to dribble much at first, but now we can make a 10-yard pass. Those baby steps are highlights for me as a coach, and so I related to the girls that we’re on a journey together.
“The season’s a long call, and you can’t quit when it doesn’t go your way right away. We’ve got to learn to get up and walk and develop some resilience. We’re on a journey of getting better, and the key to success is whether we can keep learning and growing.”
And that growth, Swinson said, goes beyond just the sport. After a path that led to her finding personal and spiritual peace, she hopes to help lead her group of players in their own personal growth.
“This season is going to prepare them for so much else in life,” Swinson said. “So many times, things do get hard in life. But character is formed through sports, and what is formed will make them a better person. It’s not that they’re learning to kick and pass a soccer ball, but that they’re doing it together, collectively as a team.
“I believe that God will use this season to grow us all into better women in general, and I’m eagerly anticipating the rest of the season and the future of the program.”