By Jeff Keeling
Fresh off his team’s 14-0 demolition of first-year program Hampton, University High soccer coach Dan Almond wouldn’t deny that his Bucs have firepower. Nonetheless, Almond is expecting a four-way dogfight in the Three Rivers Conference this season as another first-year entrant, Unicoi County, has already shown it can play with the Bucs, Elizabethton and Sullivan South.
“It’s wide open right now between those four schools,” Almond said after Thursday’s win over Hampton. That game allowed him to get his reserves plenty of playing time, and they continued a scoring barrage the starters initiated.
Scoring threats Brady Sant (striker) and Tani Houston (center midfielder) have returned to co-captain the team for their senior years, while Almond has to fill two key holes in the defense after the graduations of multi-year starting center backs Logan Webb and Noah Jones.
So far, so good, was his assessment after the Hampton game, which put UH at 3-1-1 (the team played at Elizabethton Tuesday after press time). Last year’s team was 7-6.
“I think we’re more talented offensively this year,” Almond said. “We’re kind of reloading the defense, and those guys getting used to each other makes it pretty hard to want to possess in the defensive third.”
Instead, Preston Ongtengco, Rex Crofts, eighth grader Paul Gant and transfer Aamir Shaikh are holding down the back line and getting balls forward to the middle third. There, Houston and sophomore Pablo Rivas help transition possession into the forward third, where Sant is joined by freshman Walker Page.
“He’s got a ton of pace,” Almond said of Sant, who led the team in scoring last year. “He’s one of those game changers. As the game gets tougher, he usually gets better.”
Almond coached Page in travel soccer, and said he expects a strong four-year career for the youngster.
“He’s pretty dangerous from the wing or up top,” Almond said.
Scoring is unlikely to be the bugaboo for the Bucs, though. The team scored two goals in a tie with Sullivan South, put up a seven spot in a shutout of Happy Valley, and also scored twice in a home loss to Unicoi. The Blue Devils came out strong in the second half of that game, though, and won 5-2.
Almond credited third-year starting goalkeeper Luke Wexler with helping the new backfield gel.
“We’ve gotta have that guy seeing the field, especially with our inexperience on defense, and he’s stepped up quite a bit on his command of the field, organizing the fullbacks. He’s taken some real strides in leadership this season.”
He said the team, including the defense, have been playing progressively better. Elizabethton, South and Unicoi all have good coaches, and he said each is capable of beating the other.
“Whichever team plays their highest game, game in and game out, is probably going to come away with the conference championship.”