By Jeff Nations
It's an all-too-rare experience for most athletes competing in team sports -- going out a winner.
That sensation is reserved mostly for champions, and that's just what Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy senior Austin Stover and his teammates became this past weekend at the National Association of Christian Athletes (NACA) tournament in Dayton, Tenn. The Patriots, denied a state championship the previous week in the Virginia Association of Christian Athletics (VACA) tournament, got another chance in Tennessee and Stover helped his team make the most of it.
In a five-game span stretching over three days, Stover tallied eight goals and four assists to lead the Patriots to the NACA Division 2 championship. Stover opened the tournament with a hat trick and closed it with two more goals in a 3-1 victory over Forest Lake (Fla.) in the championship last Friday. For his efforts, Stover is The Northern Virginia Daily's Boys Athlete of the Week for Oct. 27-Nov. 2.
Individual honors are nice, but Stover is more jazzed about that championship that allowed he and his fellow seniors to close their high school careers on a winning note.
"It feels amazing," Stover said. "It was definitely a great opportunity just to get out there and play against those great teams, and to show that we're one of them."
Stover did more than most to prove just that with his breakout performance in Dayton. The genesis of his high-scoring ways actually began before the season, when Stover switched positions with SVCA's leading scorer from last season, Nathanael Illsley. Stover slid up from his center-midfield role, but he never really abandoned that aspect of his game as the shift allowed the Patriots to play a "false nine" alignment. Stover could freely move back and forth between the middle and the front, giving his team greater flexibility against opponents.
"He is so dangerous and capable of beating defenders, so we moved him up this year," SVCA coach Dustin Wheelock said. "It's kind of a hybrid position. Not a lot of players could do a good job of understanding that position and still be dangerous for us."
Stover has definitely been dangerous, scoring a team-high 28 goals and adding 17 assists during the season.
That much was apparent in the Patriots' opening game at the NACA tournament against Portage Christian (Ind.). Stover tallied a hat trick and chipped in two assists as the Patriots rolled to an 8-0 victory. Stover said that win was a nice confidence boost for his team.
"We went down there thinking we might be a top 10 team," Stover said. "Before that game, we weren't sure how well we could play with the top teams."
SVCA had to turn right around and play again less than two hours later after winning its opener, and dropped a 1-0 decision to eventual Division 1 champion Chattanooga Home School. That sent the Patriots into the Division 2 tournament, with two more games scheduled for last Thursday.
In a back-and-forth, 3-2 victory over Grace Christian (Fla.), Stover scored the tying goal after the Patriots fell behind early, and the Patriots picked up the win after trading late corner-kick goals.
"We had some trouble in the back early," Stover said. "When we got that [tying] goal, it kind of lifted us back up. We just kept fighting."
That sent SVCA into the semifinals to face New Covenant, an in-state rival which won the VACA title the previous week. Stover helped the Patriots even the score a bit with two more goals as his team notched a 4-0 victory to earn a spot in the NACA championship against Forest Lake.
Kenton Guyer's goal in the seventh minute put SVCA (24-7-2) up early, but Stover gave his team some breathing room with a pair of goals within a two-minute span in the second half. In the 50th minute, he connected on a penalty kick to put the Pats up 2-0, and two minutes after that Stover collected the rebound off a missed shot for a putback for another score.
The NACA title was the Patriots' first since winning the championship in back-to-back years (2006-2007) and the first of Stover's career in three trips to Dayton.
"He was just a constant threat for us," Wheelock said. "He's played great for us all year, but in the tournament he really stepped up."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>