By Jeff Nations
STEPHENS CITY -- Jessica Crowley put in her time on the bench for Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy's girls soccer team.
A year ago, Crowley arrived at SVCA after transferring from Riverfront Christian following the basketball season. The Stephens City resident had learned that SVCA was allowing home-school students to play sports at the school for the first time, and the shorter commute distance made the decision a no-brainer for the then-junior.
There was a catch, of course -- isn't there always? Because Crowley had played basketball for Riverfront during the winter season, she wasn't allowed to play soccer in Virginia Association of Christian Athletics (VACA) games. That meant that midway through the season, Crowley was relegated to a permanent spot on the bench.
"It was really hard because I really don't like sitting on the bench -- I love playing, so it was hard in that aspect because I had to sit, even when they were having a hard time and I just wanted to contribute," Crowley said. "But also, it was really a neat experience to just get to know some of the other girls. Because I had to sit out the whole game, I could talk to whoever was on the bench. We would cheer for our team and encourage each other.
"In a sense, it was actually kind of nice because there was no pressure on me for that game, but I could still focus on having fun and getting to know the girls who were next to me on the bench."
Maybe it helped Crowley become a seamless part of the Patriots this season -- it certainly didn't hurt. Crowley led the area with 33 goals and was third with 16 assists, earning a passel of honors including the VACA State Player of the Year. Now the senior can add another -- Crowley is the Northern Virginia Daily's 2013 Girls Soccer Player of the Year.
SVCA coach Dustin Wheelock said this season was no fluke for Crowley, who immediately made a huge impact for the Patriots last year.
"Up until she was no longer able to play, she was our leading goal scorer and assists," Wheelock said. "She had right around 20 goals and around 5 assists, and that was with about 10 to 12 games that she had played. She would've put up really big numbers last year, too, but she was limited in how much we were allowed to play her."
No limitations held back Crowley this year, and she seemed to make up for lost time. Moved from an outside attacking midfielder position to center-mid this season, Crowley was soon piling up the points once more. Wheelock said the move was designed to get Crowley around the ball even more, and that turned out to be a fine idea for SVCA.
"I think the biggest adjustment was learning the different tendencies of my teammates, like learning when to play the ball through, who has speed to get to that sort of ball, and if you don't play it as hard will they get to it in time -- that sort of thing," Crowley said. "So there's just a lot of different factors that you have to get used to when you're just starting out with a new-ish team, because we had a lot of new players this year."
The influx of home-school students continued this year, and Crowley played an important role in helping the holdovers -- who won the VACA state championship, even with Crowley on the bench -- to blend with a talented group of newcomers. Crowley served as a team captain this year.
"Jessica has been a key person in that process," Wheelock said. "The challenge is taking a group of home-schoolers and then taking a group of full-time students and combine them as a team without having two separate groups. Jessica's personality and ability to comfortably talk to people has been a great bridge for us."
Bridge, pillar, wrecking ball -- Crowley was all those things for the dominating Patriots. The goals tend to blur together now, but Crowley does remember one particular game against Middleburg Academy. In that otherwise ho-hum 11-1 pounding by the Patriots, Crowley connected on a dizzying six goals.
"That was the first time and probably the only time in my life that I got a double hat trick," Crowley said. "So that was pretty exciting.
"I was not aware that I had six. I was aware that I was having a good game and that I felt good about it. I thought I was playing the ball well. I was getting some good shots."
That game might have been an extreme example, but Wheelock said seeing Crowley fill up the net on a regular basis was almost expected this season.
"I don't know how many, but she had multiple games with multiple goals," Wheelock said. "If she didn't score in a game, it was an odd game, or play a major role in the goal scoring."
Crowley was one of four SVCA players who eclipsed the 20-goal mark this season. Teammate Hannah McGann finished with 30 goals, while Megan Norton and Maddie Deason had 21 goals apiece.
Despite all that firepower, the Patriots didn't repeat as VACA state champions. In the title game, Fresta Valley -- a squad SVCA had beaten twice during the season -- came out on fire and stayed that way for a 7-4 victory.
"I think overall we had a really great year," Crowley said. "That game was only the second time we had lost the entire season, and it just happened to be in the state championship -- which is not ideal, but it happens. So overall, this was probably one of the best seasons that I and the team have had. The fact that we lost the state championship is not a factor that would make me look back and say that was not a great season because we lost our last game of the season."
Crowley is headed to James Madison University in the fall, and plans to study Health Sciences with the ultimate goal of becoming a physical therapist. Wheelock said she garnered interest from some college programs to play soccer, but Crowley is planning to focus on school and perhaps play soccer for a club team.
Wheelock will miss her next season, for certain, both for her play on the field and her leadership off it.
"Jessica is a very laid-back player," Wheelock said. "What I like about her and what's been fun with her is she's a very selfless player and she's calm. Her calmness can't be overstated -- she just has a very, very relaxed personality, emotionally doesn't get too rattled by things."
For her part, Crowley appreciates how welcoming her new SVCA teammates were when she joined the squad last year. It helped her to settle in, and in turn she helped this year's team roll to a 21-2-1 season that ended just shy of another state championship.
"All of the girls were just really awesome and easy to get along with," Crowley said. "Just funny and fun to hang out with -- the bus rides, I felt bad for the coaches and parents who had to listen to all our antics. Our personalities just really meshed well this year."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>