By Jeff Nations
STEPHENS CITY -- Kayla Freemire will never forget a certain nasty, cold night in March.
It was the opening game of the season for Freemire and her Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy girls soccer teammates, a real test right out of the gate against public school James Wood. The Patriots were more than up for that challenge, scoring a 3-0 victory that set the tone for a dazzling season that featured a repeat appearance in the Virginia Association of Christian Athletics (VACA) state championship game.
Freemire will always remember the feeling of winning on that freezing night in March, but the recent SVCA graduate will remember the message delivered afterward by Patriots coach Dustin Wheelock just as vividly as that victory.
"It was a tough game, and it was really cold and late at night," Freemire said. "We came out and rocked it. He told us how we responded to that game would define how we played the rest of the season. We could walk away from that game with too much confidence, as to where we would play -- not, cocky, but not work as hard as we should. Or we could walk away seeing what we're capable of and how much harder we can work, and what we can accomplish."
The Patriots accomplished much this season, rolling up a sparkling 21-2-1 record that marked the best in Wheelock's five-year tenure as coach. Wheelock's team blazed through the regular season with just one loss, then dominated throughout the VACA state tournament right up until the end. Fresta Valley, a team the Patriots had already beaten twice and tied once, stunned SVCA in the state championship for a 7-4 victory.
The loss denied the Patriots a second straight VACA state championship, but did little to dampen the stellar season that has earned Wheelock the Northern Virginia Daily's 2013 Girls Soccer Coach of the Year honor.
"This has been a really neat team to coach," Wheelock said. "When I first started as the varsity coach, we started like six eighth-graders that year. And for so many years, we've concentrated so much on technique and just developing players.
"This year, the team was so skilled that we could really focus on so many tactical things. They were able to take things that they'd learned over the years and just perform them. It's been a really fun team to coach."
Winning helps increase that fun quotient, and the Patriots did plenty of that this season with a high-powered offense which produced four players with more than 20 goals. SVCA, which scored 140 goals while allowing only 27. A stout defense and a strong goalkeeper in Kayla Phaneuf can take pride in that -- the Patriots opened the season with five straight shutouts and finished the season with 12 in all.
That balance was no accident, Freemire said, and she would know. A varsity player at SVCA since her seventh-grade year, Freemire played five seasons under Wheelock.
"He has taught us to play possession, to keep the ball at our feet and make good passes," Freemire said. "He's all about team defense. Instead of just having four defenders in the back as our only defensive option, everyone understands how to play defense and offense. So we had a very well-rounded team."
As the team grew and came together, Wheelock kept on expanding their training. Last year, when SVCA first allowed home-schooled students to play sports at the school, marked a real challenge as Wheelock worked to integrate a new group of players into the Patriots' style of play. That continued this year, and the result was seamless on the field.
"We had different goals every season, and he coached to reach those goals, so he varied his coaching style and the style of play that he taught us," Freemire said. "It was very effective. I think having him as coach for so many years, I've gotten to know him better so I understand what I need to do on the field and what his expectations are for the whole team."
The one hiccup admittedly came at the worst possible time, when Fresta Valley surprised the Patriots by elevating their game for the state championship. Down early, the Patriots rallied but couldn't keep pace for once.
"We'd already beaten that team twice, and we came into the game -- I think the best way to say it is that we played nervous to lose, and they played without [fear]," Wheelock said. "It didn't matter, they'd already lost to us twice. I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and it really got to us that game."
There will be work to do next season. The Patriots lost four seniors, including top scorer Jessica Crowley, plus talented forward Maddie Deason was set to move to Florida after the season. This summer, though, Wheelock and his wife -- former SVCA soccer star Mandee (Judd) Wheelock, are leading a small contingent from SVCA on a mission trip to Spain. Crowley will be among the group headed overseas to participate in a soccer clinic.
"We've gotten a chance to use soccer in a lot of different countries as a way to tell others about Christ," Wheelock said. "One of the biggest things I've learned is we don't teach them things about soccer -- we're the ones learning. We went to Romania, we went to Costa Rica, we're about to go to the Dominican."
Already, though, Wheelock is thinking about next season and how to get the Patriots back into the state tournament. This season's success may well be the biggest influence on next year's team, as well.
"A lot of girls got a lot of time, which is really neat and important for us moving forward," Wheelock said. "We were able to get a lot of players in and get them some experience."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>