By Brad Fauber
STEPHENS CITY -- Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy's boys soccer coach Dustin Wheelock foresaw the potential benefits of moving senior Austin Stover up in the Patriots' offensive formation before the start of the season last fall.
Stover, a midfielder for SVCA during his first three high school seasons, had flashed the dangerous ball skills required of an effective goal scorer, and Wheelock liked the idea of giving Stover more opportunities as a goal-seeking forward. But Stover's ball-handling and field vision translated well to his natural position in the midfield.
Wheelock had the solution, and he introduced the concept of the "false nine" to the Patriots this past fall. Stover filled that role, which essentially allowed him to float freely between the striker and midfield positions to maximize his ability.
"It made him harder to be marked, but then it put him in a lot of dangerous areas moving forward, making runs forward and things like that," Wheelock said Monday. "He's very good with the ball at his feet, so we wanted him to be closer to the goal."
The move worked flawlessly for the Patriots this past season, as Stover finished with a career-high 26 goals and 15 assists to lead SVCA last fall.
Stover, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2014 Boys Soccer Player of the Year, thrived in his new role, although he admitted he was initially a little hesitant about the switch that required he and last year's leading scorer, Nathanael Illsley, to swap places on the pitch.
"It was a pretty confusing formation at first ... because I didn't play striker basically my whole high school career. I played midfield, so once I kind of got back up top it was a little bit confusing," Stover said last week. "Then [Wheelock] told me about this false nine thing and it kind of worked out later. As the year went on I kind of got better and better at it and kind of understood it more. He taught me a lot about it."
Stover credits all of the offseason work he did with Wheelock as one of the biggest factors in the improvement of his game since his freshman season, and Wheelock said Stover brought controlled chaos to the pitch in his new role, which strengthened SVCA's attack this season.
"He gets the ball at his feet and it looks like there's just this chaos, but he's under control the whole time," Wheelock said. "He's able to just go by several defenders and he's really known for touching it around the goalie and then into the net. He just reads the game really well. He's an interesting player because he's never the fastest on the field, he's never the strongest on the field, but what he does nobody else on the field can do. The ball is just glued to his feet."
Stover was as consistent a player as any for the Patriots (24-7-2) all season long, but he took his game to another level at the National Association of Christian Athletes (NACA) tournament held on Oct. 30-Nov. 1 in Dayton, Tennessee.
In a five-game span over those three days, Stover scored eight goals and tallied four assists as the Patriots won the NACA Division 2 championship. He earned the title of NACA Offensive MVP of the tournament.
"All year Austin was a good player for us, but at that tournament Austin was pretty unreal," Wheelock said. "He really put the team on his back. He's always a motivated player. I've never had to motivate Austin all four years. He's always come ready to play. But that tournament, there's just those times that a player gets that look in their eye that there isn't going to be anything that gets them off track. Austin was just very focused that entire tournament."
Stover opened the NACA tournament with a hat trick against Portage Christian (Indiana) as the Patriots rolled to an 8-0 victory, and he was just as strong in SVCA's final two games of the season. He scored two goals in a 4-0 win over New Covenant -- a rematch of the Virginia Association of Christian Athletes (VACA) tournament championship that SVCA had lost the week before -- before capping his career with two more goals in a 3-1 win over Forest Lake (Florida) in the NACA championship match.
"We were expecting to do well, but I didn't think that we were going to be as competitive as we actually were," Stover said. "Our first few games we killed it. We played really well, we came out strong and our heads were really in it."
Stover said he was driven by the prospect of earning the title of NACA All-American honors in the tournament, a feat that had just eluded him during his junior season. Stover was appropriately given the award following his performance this past fall.
"It definitely made me a little nervous ... because I played really well last year but I didn't get it, so it was making me nervous because I kind of really wanted it for this year," said Stover, who was also named the VACA state player of the year. "It was a goal of mine to just play really well for that. Coming in this year I basically had my mind set on getting that award because that's something I've always wanted. I was definitely happy to get it. It definitely helped me play better I think, just wanting to get something so bad."
Stover, who also currently races cars in the Crate Late Model division at Winchester Speedway each weekend, plans to attend Lord Fairfax Community College in the fall before eventually moving on to a larger school. He will study graphic design, a passion that arose from his interest in the vinyl and logos he sees on cars at the racetrack.
Stover said he isn't sure whether he will play soccer at LFCC in the fall, but he does hope to eventually play college soccer in the future.
Stover certainly left his mark on the SVCA boys soccer program, but Wheelock said the senior's on-field exploits were only a part of what made Stover so special.
"The biggest thing that stood out to me is Austin's character," Wheelock said. "We had a lot of really good kids on the team, but he's just a good leader, a good kid that is a very positive player. He allowed players around him to be comfortable. He was a captain for us this year. More than even how his playing stood out this year, his leadership qualities were vital for our team."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org