By Mike Blackerby
There’s another sport to be reckoned with at Austin-East, and it has nothing to do with the Roadrunners’ tradition-rich football, basketball or track teams.
The upstart A-E soccer team is off to the best start in school history.
Friday night at Sam Anderson Field, the Roadrunners hosted Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences in their biggest test of the season to date.
A-E (7-0-1) and the highly regarded Patriots (5-1-1), who advanced to the Class A state semifinals last season before falling to Gatlinburg-Pittman, battled to a scoreless tie.
“We like to win, but we’re gonna grow from this – they’re a really good team,” said A-E coach Jonathan Netherland, who has ramped up expectations at the school.
Netherland applauded the fact that an established school like CSAS was willing to play the Roadrunners.
There’s a credibility factor now with A-E soccer.
“This is a school that probably wouldn’t have played us five years ago or have made the trip,” he said.
Friday’s outcome was a continuation of the growth the program has shown under the direction of Netherland, in his fourth year as Roadrunners coach.
A-E, which starts five freshmen, has outscored its first eight opponents 44-4 this season.
Until recently, the sport has had trouble gaining traction at the inner-city East Knoxville school.
A-E was a combined 1-51-3 from 2008 to 2014, but the Roadrunners’ fortunes have taken a sharp U-turn in recent years under Netherland’s direction.
In 2018, A-E enjoyed its best season yet, finishing 9-3-1 and losing to eventual state champion Gatlinburg-Pittman in the District 2-A semifinals, 3-2.
Netherland said the soccer team received a big boost when the high school recently started an English as a Second Language program for foreign students.
Many of the students come from countries where soccer is the primary sport.
“The school started an ESL program six years ago and that has definitely helped (the soccer program),” said Netherland.
“I’d say 97.9 percent of our team is made up of immigrants.”
A-E’s best player, senior Phillippe Nyembo, is from Burundi.
“He’s a senior forward who has led us in scoring every single year,” said Netherland.
“Phillippe has 11 goals this season. He’s lean and fast. He has been playing soccer for a long time and he has a knack for scoring.”
Phillippe and his brother, Masudi, are one of seven pairs of brothers on the team.
Other brother combinations are from Myanmar, Iraq, Mexico, Tanzania and the Congo.
A-E’s ascension is a personal testament to Netherland, who graduated from the school in 2006 and played on three Roadrunners soccer teams that never won a game.
“It’s gratifying and fulfilling, this being my alma mater and having been raised here,” he said.
“I’ve never left. I’m not here for the money. I’m here for the kids. It irritates me that some people think we can’t be very good in soccer at Austin-East. We’re all passionate about it.”