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Injuries. They seem to have defined Oneida soccer of late.

Last season ended with the loss of the Lady Indians’ top forward, Macy Dunlap, just as Oneida was preparing for a Class A substate game against Alcoa with a trip to the state tournament in Murfreesboro on the line. Dunlap had finished the season strong, with a flurry of goals in several games as the Lady Indians went on a five-game winning streak to win the District 3-A championship and advance to the region championship game.

Dunlap is back for her senior season — and healthy — as she prepares to lead her team towards an unprecedented third straight district title. But the Lady Indians will start the season down a couple more starters in sophomore Caroline Keeton and junior Gracie Martin. Their return is uncertain, though Oneida coach Phil Newport is hoping for the best and eyeing midseason.

“We’re anxious to see if they can return,” Newport said. “Injuries are impacting us a little bit.”

Despite the injuries, Newport likes his team — he likes their effort and their potential.

“We have been moving pieces around,” he said. “We have some good players returning and a whole slew of talented freshmen have joined us. They all have shown some excellent skills.”

Leading the returners is Dunlap, an all-state-caliber player who was named the Region 2-A offensive player of the year as a junior after scoring 22 goals. She also won the award as a sophomore. Dunlap has 43 career goals and, with a solid senior season, could well exit as Oneida’s all-time leading scorer.

Back as well in the front is Emalea Sexton.

Another key for Oneida is senior Alea Jones. She’s preparing for her fourth year in front of the net, and is a two-time District 3-A defensive player of the year.

Laurel Blount and Caroline Bell will slide into the midfield, anchoring key spots in the center for Newport’s club.

The Lady Indians will field 26 players, a luxury in Class A soccer.

“With this many kids, we are establishing depth in the lineup, and that is going to help immeasurably,” Newport said.

Oneida is riding a wave of success into the 2019 season, having been to the substate — one step shy of the state tournaments — each of the past two seasons and having won back-to-back District 3-A championships. The Lady Indians won the Region 2-A championship in 2017.

Oneida is again the favorite to win District 3 in 2019 — in spite of the injuries — and Newport knows his team will be in the crosshairs of their opponents.

“If we play to our capabilities, we can contend for the championship not just in the district but in the region as well,” he said. “I feel like our defense is coming along veery well but I’m not putting much emphasis on results in our preseason play days. I’m playing everybody and we’ll see how they react against different teams.”

In fact, when you ask Newport how many seniors he has, he struggles to recollect all of them. That’s not because he doesn’t know his players; it’s just that he views each player by merit instead of grade level.

“I don’t pay attention to sophomore, junior, senior, all of that,” he said. “I’m going to play all of them. Grade don’t matter.”

The 2019 season will feature a revamped Jane Terry Hoffman Field on the campus of Oneida Elementary School. “Dugouts” — covered shelters that provide relief from the blazing sun of August and the chilly rains of October — are almost complete on the sideline, and lights will soon be installed. In the past, the school has brought in portable lighting for postseason games after the days have grown shorter. Now night games will not be an issue, and Newport said he is excited about the upgrades.

Newport is also excited about his team.

“I like this team,” he said. “Several of the young ones will help. If we get healthy, I really like our chances to be a factor. They have all been working hard.

“If our kids keep buying in then this community will have an entertaining soccer team to watch,” he added.