By Jeff Nations
STEPHENS CITY -- Megan Norton's moment of serendipity came in the form of an invitation.
One of Norton's teammates on an indoor soccer league team at Winchester's Sportsplex, Maddie Deason, asked if she'd like to come out to try futsal.
That's where she met Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy girls soccer coach Dustin Wheelock.
"I actually didn't know about this school until maybe about a month before they started their preseason training," Norton said. "Maddie Deason and I played at the Sportsplex together, and she just said, 'Do you want to come and play futsal?' And since SVCA was missing a couple of players and [Wheelock] was one of the refs, after the first half of one of our games he came over and asked me if I wanted to play here."
The timing couldn't have been better for Norton, who lives in Halltown, W.Va. SVCA had just decided the year before to begin allowing home school students to play sports at the school, and along came Norton.
"It was really cool because I didn't have any idea where to go because all the teams in the area around where I live, they all play in the fall," Norton said. "And all the [Virginia] high schools, they play in the spring but they don't allow home schoolers. So this really was one of the only options I had. I just didn't know about it until a month before the season."
Soon enough, Norton went from having no place to play to playing at the perfect place.
A junior midfielder, Norton and the rest of the newly arrived home school contingent fused seamlessly with the rest of the team right from the start.
"We were able to just step on the field -- it was almost like a mental telepathy with everyone," Norton said. "We just knew where everyone was going to go. You didn't even really have to say anything. It was pretty cool. It's the first time that's ever happened to me."
The Patriots' uncanny success never slowed from that first game, as SVCA lost just once during the regular season before a surprise stumble at the end cost the team a second straight Virginia Association of Christian Athletics (VACA) state championship. The Patriots were dealt a 7-4 loss by Fresta Valley, a team SVCA had beaten fairly handily twice previously during the year.
"We really should've won states last year, too, but stuff happens," Norton said. "That was a stupid game. One of the goals -- at least two of them, actually -- the girls weren't even paying attention when it got passed to them. And when they kicked it, it just happened to be right out of the goalie's reach. It was a little weird."
It was a rare misstep for the Patriots, who finished the season with a sparkling 21-2-1 record behind a bevy of explosive playmakers including VACA State Player of the Year Jessica Crowley (33 goals, 16 assists), high-scoring forward Hannah McGann (30 goals), plus solid scorers in Deason (21 goals) and Norton (21 goals).
Norton also led the area with 27 assists last year.
"They pretty much all went to Hannah," Norton said. "She was always in the perfect spot, wherever I needed her."
That's good news, since McGann and Norton are the two returnees from that high-scoring quartet. They're sure to combine often again this season, but Norton's role is about to increase.
"She'll be in the middle of the field," Wheelock said. "Last year she had the luxury of having a lot of really good strength around her all over the field. This year we're a strong team, too, but Megan's role is really going to be to get the ball and attack."
"Naturally she's a move the ball around type player. The challenge for her this year is to look to beat several defenders off the dribble and know when to pass and when to take it -- just be a little more risky this year."
Wheelock said he started to see the potential rewards of a more free-wheeling Norton during last year's VACA postseason. Norton earned VACA North regional Most Valuable Player honors with her relentless pressure on the goal in both a supporting and attacking role.
"I felt like in that tournament and in the state tournament, we saw Megan really take things to a different level," Wheelock said. "She really went at teams in that tournament and the next tournament."
The Patriots have other holes to replace, including top defender Kayla Freemire plus rock-solid defender Hayley North. Returning starters Grace Snyder and Krista Freemire are looked to as the new bulwarks of the Patriots' back line, with talented junior goalkeeper Kayla Phaneuf returning to once more provide the last line of defense.
"We're not going to change a lot of our style," Wheelock said. "We want to control the ball, we want to pass and get everybody involved and build up to an attack."
Mostly, that's true -- except in Norton's case, where Wheelock has been reminding her to "get the ball and go" more often this year.
"She's very skilled with the ball at her feet, so I think naturally if she gives up the ball that frustrates her," Wheelock said. "She's always learned that you beat a couple defenders and before she'll use the ball to play a pass, like you should.
"But this year she needs to be willing to be risky. If she loses the ball, it's OK. You just work hard to get the ball back. We want to make defenders work hard to be great defenders."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>