By Jeff Nations
STEPHENS CITY - Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy's Austin Stover found a bit of inspiration on the soccer field last season.
It didn't all come from his own time on the field, though -- Stover learned plenty of valuable and encouraging lessons while serving as an informal manager for SVCA's girls soccer team in the spring.
"The girls played amazing last year," Stover said. "That was one of the best girls teams I've ever seen here. Personally, I think they passed and got each other so well last year. They made amazing plays, which I really want to try to do that with our team."
With nearly everyone back from a squad that finished 16-7-1 and reached the Virginia Association of Christian Athletics (VACA) state championship game last year, the Patriots are primed to accomplish even more on the boys side this season.
Stover, a Strasburg resident entering his fourth season as a varsity player for the school he's attended since kindergarten, is excited about the Patriots' new-look formation which features two attacking midfielders this season. Stover, who finished second on the team with 25 goals last year behind striker Nathanael Illsley and led the Patriots in assists, will join Bennett Heidelberger as the Patriots' twin offensive-minded midfielders, while Chris Mason will act as the defensive mid in the 4-3-3 formation.
"I'll still have my same position, but I'll have another midfielder also, who is a striking midfielder to kind of help me out a little bit. It's different, but I think it's going to help us this year. We didn't really lose anybody from last year, and keeping this formation with that talent that we have is going to work a lot better.
"You have to know what every position does because it involves a lot of people actually switching positions throughout the plays. That's why you have to know your teammates so well because you will be playing their position. You have to know what that person's thinking, really, and I think this formation really helps out with that."
Patriots coach Dustin Wheelock said the team had a skeleton version of the formation last year, but with such a cohesive and experienced team this season he's ready to fully commit to it.
"It's a lot more complicated and it requires a lot more soccer knowledge, but it allows for a lot more creativity," Wheelock said. "We take advantage of speed that we have and just skill that we have, but it's going to take some time."
Stover is one of the players the new formation is designed to feature the most, which makes perfect sense considering how productive and dangerous he was for the Patriots last season. Although Illsley was and likely will continue to be SVCA's primary finisher, Stover will be even more of a focal point for the Patriots' attack this year.
"Austin's our go-to guy," Wheelock said. "Nathanael's up top and he does great, he finishes. Austin's our target. We try to find his feet a lot.
"Austin's a very unique player. His touch, the ball just stays with him. You hear that a lot, but really every time his foot goes down to the ground he's touching the ball. He just slides in and out of players really well. He can go really hard, and stop, and then go again."
Maybe Stover's experience driving race cars on Saturday nights at nearby Winchester Speedway -- he's currently ninth in the points standings in the 4 Cylinder division at the track -- plays some factor in that uncanny use of his ability to accelerate. Stover said his ability to cut and go helps create the space he needs to get off quality shots on goal.
"That's usually how I score -- I can cut really well," Stover said. "That's basically how I scored most of my goals last year."
The Patriots opened their season on Tuesday, battling Grace Christian to a 1-1 draw in a match that was a late addition the schedule. Today, SVCA hosts a 16-team tournament that functions as an extended scrimmage and allows the team to face off against a host of opponents in abbreviated 30-minute games.
Looking ahead to the formal start of the regular season, Stover admits he's eager to face Fresta Valley once again. Last year, the Patriots beat Fresta Valley in the VACA regional finals, but lost in a rematch for the state championship.
Only Stover and fellow senior Mitchel Ryan remain from SVCA's last state championship team, so that's another goal for the season. Beyond that, Stover is looking forward to one last trip to Dayton, Tenn., to play in the National Association of Christian Athletics (NACA) tournament to close out his high school career.
"I'm really hoping to get [NACA] All-America this year," Stover said. "I was close to it last year. I got all-tournament last year, which is very close to All-American, but that's my main goal this year. That's been my main goal since I've gotten into varsity soccer."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>