By Jeff Keeling
University High’s girls’ soccer team won more games last year than it had in the previous five years combined and just missed qualifying for substate. An opening game double-digit demolition of Unicoi County in Erwin Thursday served notice the team appears capable of meeting this year’s high expectations.
While he lost very little to graduation from an already high-octane offense, second-year coach Dan Almond did end last season knowing he would need to replace the core of his defense – goalkeeper Samantha Shearin and center back Michaela Lane. Almond had a plan for one of those departures, and is feeling pretty good about who’s filling in for the other.
In goal, potentially for a three-year run, will be Courtney Henley, who split time as a freshman last year between striker and goalkeeper. Almond wanted her to get some net experience knowing she would likely be his keeper this season.
“She’s extremely talented,” Almond said of Henley. “In three or four years I think she’s gonna be one of the top keepers in this area. If she keeps growing and working at the rate we expect from our team, I expect great, great things.”
Where Lane anchored the defense last year, Almond has found a familiar name. Makenna Oiler is a freshman and the younger sister of Annika Oiler, a senior co-captain who forms half of the Bucs’ dynamic duo (with junior Sarah Robinson) at striker.
“To start on the back line as a freshman takes quite a bit of talent,” Almond said of the younger Oiler. Makenna Oiler has played club soccer and Almond sensed she would be pretty good based on his work with Annika Oiler. “I didn’t realize until the preseason this year that she was more of a fullback-type player and that’s what she liked to play. That was a huge blessing, because that was a big hole we needed to fill this season.”
Flanking Oiler at right back will be sophomore Keaton Sant, whose brother, Brady, was the UH boys’ team’s leading scorer last season. Almond said she lets few offensive players get by and is strong at connecting passes.
The starting left back, just as she was last year as a freshman will be sophomore Abby Gantz.
“Most teams like attacking right, so there’s a reason I put her there,” Almond said. “I’m very confident in her ability to stop attacks and transfer the ball into the midfield quickly.”
Once balls reach that midfield, co-captains Maia Houston and Gracie Somich will go to work at the center mid positions. The pair complement one another, Almond said.
“Gracie’s more of a defensive center mid. She has a good shot, but she’s really good at shutting down counter-attacks, organizing a little more of the defense behind her, and trying to find that killer diagonal early.”
He referred to Houston as the team’s field general: “A great in-between, transferring the attack from when we win the ball out of the back, getting the ball forward quickly, or maintaining possession when we need to. I think she’s excited about finishing out her senior year with a bang. She’s just a talented, talented player. It’s been fun even from last year to this year watching her grow in her game.”
The team’s wings are relatively untested, Almond said. Those slots may be among the most open for some other players to move into starting roles, but now they’re occupied by eighth-grader Sarah Luna (left wing) and sophomore Samantha Grillo. Grillo is extremely fast, Almond said, while Luna, who replaces the only other departing starter (Lexi Crouthers) he called extremely skilled with great touch on the ball.
Gwen Kirschke, Maria Leonard and Terika Sadilova are among the non-starters expected to push for starting jobs and get decent time off the bench. “There’s not a huge dropoff there, and that’s really what you need to make a long (postseason) run,” Almond said.
While the rest of the team includes some players with good scoring potential, it’s the Annika Oiler-Sarah Robinson front line that gives opponents’ back lines fits. Robinson was last season’s conference offensive player of the year as a sophomore. “She and Annika work very well up top, getting goals and working off each other, and both of them continue to be very, very coachable.”
He called Robinson “a machine in front of the goal. If she’s anywhere near the goal, there’s a high probability that we’re going to get a goal out of it.”
In conference, Almond expects Elizabethton and Sullivan South to provide strong competition. Greeneville typically dominates the region’s other conference, and he anticipates Chuckey-Doak may again be the other regional playoff team. UH’s first games against South and Elizabethton are Aug. 30 and Sept. 6, respectively.
“Those two weeks are going to be really big for determining the early district.”