November 16, 2017
By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools
It’s as competitive as a high school football game.
The only difference is that soil judging teams don’t wear uniforms.
At a recent event to determine the Tennessee state champions, competitors arrived wearing coveralls and bib overalls, Carhartt jackets, work boots, slop boots, cowboy boots, cowboy hats, and worn out ball caps.
Then there was Eagleville School.
They laughed among themselves at not having the stereotypical “country” look.
They wore sweat pants and long-sleeved T-shirts instead of jeans and long-sleeved button-down shirts. One wore a windbreaker and three of the four were wearing tennis shoes. A couple members pulled their hair back in a ponytail and another pulled hers up.
“We didn’t look like a normal soil team,” said Karsen Daniel, who added, “You would not see me as a soil judger.”
Daniel was teamed with Caitlyn Benton, Karah Snell and Calee Pineda, who admitted she was so nervous she felt as though she was “going to throw up.”
Pineda never did.
If the four friends did not look like an A-team, it’s because they are this year’s B-team at Eagleville.
But on that particular Saturday morning, they played like state champions and for the sixth time since Bruce Haley took over the agriculture program at Rutherford County’s only remaining K-12 school, the soil program is the 2017 state champion.
And this coming spring they’ll head to Oklahoma City for the national competition.
“We proved ourselves as good soil judgers,” said Benton, a junior, who claimed the individual state soil judging title. “I had no words (then) and still don’t.”
Benton, Daniel, Pineda and Snell were the only all-girl team to compete at the state event in Tennessee.
And their status as the only all-girl team did not go unnoticed.
“Everyone just automatically had their eyes on us,” recalled Pineda of their arrival at the western region pit site, “It was so intimidating.”
Daniel said, “It was like they were sizing us up.”
No one expected them to place.
Not even themselves, which is why there were shocked as everyone else when they were announced as the 2017 state champions.
“That’s my favorite part,” Pineda said. “We had a lot to prove and it was funny.”
As the B-team — they represented Rutherford County’s 4H program — they had already advanced further in the competition than expected, especially after the top four members representing Eagleville’s FFA team had missed state by just three points.
Benton said they were nervous, but there was no need to put any pressure on themselves.
That said, soil judging is akin to football success at other large public high schools in the mid-state region.
“This is our thing,” Haley said.
In 34 of his 35 years at the school, Eagleville has been the Midstate district champions and 30 of those 34 times they’ve won the region and advanced to the state competition. Six of those years – or 20 percent of the time – they have been state soil judging champions.
“There are other things we do here,” Haley said, “but soil is king. Soil comes first.”
Haley added, “That’s where it starts. Without soil there would be no plants and plants produce oxygen.”
At Eagleville, students enroll in the agriculture program and sign up for FFA and 4H as freshmen. Then as sophomores, they’re introduced to soil science but do not begin competing until their junior and senior years in school.
Topics like soil science along with agricultural and farm business are built in the leadership pathway.
In class, students learn how to evaluate soil and answer questions ranging from what crops can be grown and which crops would produce the most to what is wrong with the land and what can be done to fix it.
The top students — each year Haley identifies the top four and the top eight — learn how to evaluate soil by making a series of 200 observations that include texture, depth, water capacity, erosion, floodplain or upland and whether or not the soil is favorable for roots.
The top students compete on the FFA team, while the next four top students make up the 4H team for Rutherford County.
“I’ll make cuts just like a basketball team or football,” said Haley, who explained just how competitive it is to make one of the two teams. “You have to have students who study hard and are really, really intelligent.”
He added, “We have good students at Eagleville. I believe we have the best school of anywhere. If I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t have spent 35 years here.”
Benton, Daniel, Pineda and Snell said they are aware of the tradition of success at Eagleville. In fact, their parents came through the same program 20 years earlier.
“Once I got here and I realized how big of a deal it was,” said Benton, who transferred to Eagleville her freshman year, “I wanted to be part of it.”
Daniel said, “We have a big legacy to fill.”
All four of them were in high school when Eagleville advanced to the national event two years ago. The Eagles finished fourth in the nation that year.
This year’s group may have already overachieved, but their sights are set on providing Haley, Eagleville school, the community and the county its first national title for soil judging.
“Words can’t express how I feel,” Haley continued. “Those girls, they want to get higher than fourth. I can tell you that."