By Jeff Keeling
They’re young, they score in bunches, and their solid back line is giving up very little. It all adds up to a winning combination for the University High girls’ soccer team under first-year coach Dan Almond.
The team improved to 6-0-1 in conference play and 6-1-1 overall with a dominating 5-0 home victory over David Crockett Thursday. The game avenged the only blemish on the Junior Lady Bucs record, a 1-1 tie at Crockett.
“We’re doing very well this season,” Almond said Friday.
Indeed, aside from a 4-1 loss to non-conference foe Tennessee High, UH has outscored its opponents 34-3 in those seven league games. The attack is led by junior Annika Oiler and sophomore Sarah Robinson, who combine in a two-forward setup and each have seven goals.
“They’re very dangerous, they work well together, and they’re very coachable,” Almond said of the striker duo.
Behind them and initiating much of the magic are midfielders Grace Somich, a sophomore who has five goals and five assists, and co-captain Maya Houston. One of just three seniors on the squad, Houston also has five assists on the year.
“I’ve got four players in there that are just goal and assist machines and are just so coachable, it’s been a real blessing to me for sure,” said Almond, who is mixing an emphasis on possession with a counterattacking style.
“We always have a purpose of getting forward early, and if we don’t have an advantageous opportunity to do that we’re more than capable of keeping possession until we can,” he said.
The Crockett rematch provided an example. Lexi Crouthers started the scoring at the eight-minute mark on an assist from Oiler, but a packed-in Crockett defense kept the Bucs from finding the net the rest of the half. Almond said he had altered the team’s lineup and style to adjust to Crockett’s defense, and in the second half it paid dividends.
UH pressed in the first minute, and Houston delivered a diagonal pass from about 30 yards out to Oiler, who was on the right side just outside the penalty box. “Annika took a little touch to the right and absolutely ripped the shot,” Almond said. “I don’t think a college goalkeeper would have saved that goal – it was really nice.”
The Bucs would add two more goals in the next eight minutes. Courtney Henley scored on an assist from Oiler and Robinson scored assisted by Somich. Houston finished the scoring with 10 minutes left on a Robinson assist.
Almond, who took over the UH boys’ program last spring, said the play style, and the team’s depth of talent, has resulted in a total of 10 players having found the net so far this season.
On the other end of the field, he began the season without a bona fide goalkeeper. After trying out five different candidates, he settled on Samantha Shearin, a senior, but freshman Henley has shown flashes of great promise and is typically logging some significant second-half minutes.
When opponents do work the ball into UH’s end, they have to contend with a back line anchored by senior co-captain Michaela Lane, whom Almond called “awesome with organizing.
“If there’s a forward I need shut down she takes care of it. She’s been huge in the back for us this season.”
The defense will certainly need to step up once the postseason arrives. The team played at Happy Valley after News and Neighbor went to press Tuesday night, visits Elizabethton Sept. 29, and finishes its regular season on East Tennessee State University’s pitch hosting Unicoi Oct. 1 and non-conference foe Sullivan Central Oct. 8.
The district tournament starts Oct. 12, and Almond is hoping for – expecting, really – a top two finish there and trip to regionals.
“I’d really like to see us win district,” Almond said. “That would set us up to likely meet Greeneville in the regional final. That would be a good measuring stick for us.”