After four straight district championship game appearances and four straight substate games, Oneida head coach Phil Newport wants his 2021 club to understand that the past is in the past, and the present is all that matters.
“You girls realize that you haven’t won a game,” Newport told his team after a lackluster day of practice last week. “You haven’t competed for a championship. Last year was last year. It doesn’t count for you.”
Harsh? Maybe. But, “I want this team to find their own identity,” Newport said. “I want them to play for themselves and not ride on the success of the last several teams. As soon as we figure that out and we start to play the way I think we’re capable of playing, we’re going to be a lot better.”
Part of the reason for Newport’s approach to this season and this team is the program that joins Oneida at the top of the district. Cumberland Gap snapped the Lady Indians’ streak of three straight district championships last season, and returns nearly everyone. It’s a talented team that is looking for a repeat trip to the state tournament in Murfreesboro. And that’s what stands between Oneida and another piece of hardware in the trophy case.
“We have some talent, but are we the most talented team out there? No,” Newport said. “We have to work our way up. Cumberland Gap is at the top, and that’s where we want to get.”
Newport has a good stable of talent to rely on as he begins his pursuit of Cumberland Gap. The key, he said, is figuring out where each piece of the puzzle fits into place.
“I can say this for sure: I feel like we’re behind where we should be at,” he said. “There are a lot of things that factor into that, like lack of game exposure, the amount of heat, and defining roles.”
Oneida will replace four seniors who graduated after last season, causing the Lady Indians to need to find a way to break in new starters at most defensive positions. Up front, Oneida returns key players like Aliyah Douglas, Caroline Keeton and Alexia Jones, all of them potential all-district and all-region players who will factor heavily into whatever the Lady Indians are able to accomplish this season.
Newport said that replacing his seniors has been tough — not so much from a talent standpoint, but from a leadership standpoint.
“They went through a lot of became better players as they gained more experience,” Newport said of last year’s seniors. “I’m on the other end of the shoe now. I’ve got kids that don’t have as much experience, but their skillset is good enough for us to maintain our competitive level where it has been the last several years.”
Newport has a good mix of seniors, who he will rely on for leadership. Perhaps key among them is Savana Shepard, who will be a third-year starter. Keeton is another key player, who exhibits tremendous quickness in the front.
Two more seniors who will factor in this year are Jayden Terry and Madison Jones.
“Initially I didn’t know how much of an impact (Madison) was going to make on the team, but from an effort standpoint, she’s gonna work her way into getting minutes with my starting lineup,” Newport said.
Oneida’s junior class is one of the school’s most heralded classes — at least from a soccer standpoint — in quite some time. Douglas burst onto the scene as a freshman when she was the Lady Indians’ second leading scorer, behind record-setter Macy Douglas. And she’s joined by a number of other players who will contribute, including Jones, Kenlee Duncan, Kamryn Kennedy and Claire Burress.
“I expect a lot out of that bunch,” Newport said of his juniors. “There are probably as many as five that will see the starting lineup. I expect more quality out of that junior class.”
One thing that will hurt is that the Lady Indians are forced to move Burress out of the goal and into the field. She was poised to be the top keeper in the district, but is battling a shoulder injury that limits her at that position.
“It always hurts when you lose the girl that started the previous season in the goal,” Newport said. “Case in point, we felt like we were going to fall off the wagon a little bit when Aleah Jones left us her senior year. Then we got Claire, so I got remarkably lucky.”
With Burress unable to play in front of the net, Newport will rely on two younger players: Ayla Sims and Karmen Krahn. Sims started as the JV keeper last year, while Krahn is brand-new to the game of soccer. Newport expects both to play, because both exhibit qualities he’s looking for in a keeper.
“We’re flipping the script this year,” he said. “We’re going to try to create instances where our defense plays well in front and makes the game easier for the girl I put in front of the net.”
With more than 30 players on the roster, Newport has big sophomore and freshman classes. Two of his sophomores that he points to are Rory Blevins and Emilee Sexton. Both are versatile players who can play multiple positions.
“I have a lot of players that are extremely versatile,” Newport said. “Those kinds of players can help my team anywhere I put them. My job for this year is to make sure I find the right spots for the right people.”
Even with so many veteran players returning, Oneida will have three freshmen who contribute right away. Lydia Kline will primarily play on defense, while Jillian Cross and Presley Queener will see time in the front.
As the season begins (Aug. 17 at Corbin, Ky.), Newport is not completely satisfied with the way his team has approached the work in front of it.
“They’ve come to practices and they’ve done a suitable job,” he said. “Do I think they can do better? Yes I do. But I guess that’s me as a coach. I always expect your best.”
Newport said part of the issue is the extreme heat that everyone has been battling during the preseason practices.
“We’ve grinded through the practices, it’s not fun, the heat’s getting us down, and we find reasons to lay off a little bit,” he said. “This team doesn’t need to do that.”
If the goal is to knock off Cumberland Gap, the Lady Indians will have the opportunity to show they can compete with the defending district champs. Newport points out that nearly his entire defense is new, with Jailyn Anderson being the only returning starter after four players graduated and Kelsey Pike opted to give up soccer to focus on basketball, where she’ll enter her junior season as one of the top players in the state.
“I need that defense to grow up quick,” Newport said. “If that happens, we can compete for a championship with Cumberland Gap. But I can’t win a shootout. I can’t give up six goals and expect my offense to generate six goals. Realistically, I don’t want to say I’m going to lean on my defense, but those kids have got to step up for us to do what we want to do.”
After four consecutive trips to the substate, the expectation will be for the Lady Indians to get back there again this season. And that’s okay with Newport.
“The expectations are fine,” he said. “I don’t think anybody expects more out of their program than I do. I want to succeed.”
Regardless of how the district and region shake out, Newport expects his team to be in a good position if and when it reaches the substate.
“The girls who have been here three or four years, they all understand the importance of that one game,” he said.
Oneida came up short in each of the last four substate games, sometimes due to injury and sometimes due to running into extremely skilled opponents.
“I’m glad to be knocking on the door, but I’d like to knock the danged thing down eventually,” Newport said.
“If we’re always getting to the substate, that means there are 16 teams in the state still left. By most measurements, if you get to the top 16 every year for four years, people are going to think, ‘Hey they are a pretty good program.’ That’s what I want us to accomplish as a program. I want people to say Oneida and the word soccer and have some respect for our program.”