By Brad Fauber
STEPHENS CITY -- Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy girls soccer coach Dustin Wheelock wanted to put the best competition possible on the Patriots' schedule in the months leading up to the 2014 spring season.
Wheelock had dabbled in pitting the Patriots against public schools in the past, as SVCA opened both the 2012 and 2013 seasons with road matches at nearby James Wood High School. But he took that scheduling strategy to the next level this spring by setting up two matches against James Wood and another against Handley in an effort to get the Patriots more quality matches deeper into the season.
"This year we said, 'Look, we are loading up the schedule so that when you get to the end of the year, you're not going to be nervous about the team you're playing,'" Wheelock said on Wednesday. "You know how you're supposed to play. You've played in tight, close games. You've played in tense games."
SVCA went 1-2 in those three games against public school competition -- including a big 3-1 road win over James Wood on April 15 -- but the experience that those matches afforded the Patriots was invaluable.
In fact, it may have been matches such as those that ultimately helped the Patriots keep their composure down the stretch when it mattered most. By season's end, SVCA was at the top of its game.
Wheelock, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2014 Girls Soccer Coach of the Year, led the Patriots to their first-ever National Association of Christian Athletes (NACA) tournament championship, which SVCA immediately followed by winning its second Virginia Association of Christian Athletes (VACA) state championship in the last three seasons.
"You saw it really start in the tournaments at the end of the season ... but the girls just played all year with a humbleness," said Wheelock, who has coached SVCA's girls soccer program since 2008. "They didn't step onto the field and feel like they deserved to win. They felt that they had to earn it the whole time. You saw that really come out at NACA. They didn't feel like they were better than anybody, they just went out and performed."
SVCA's 2014 season will go down as one of the most successful in the program's history, but the Patriots -- who had lost eight players from the 2013 season that saw them fall in the VACA championship -- needed a little convincing about just how successful they could be at the beginning of the season.
"The coaching staff felt like it was there," Wheelock said of SVCA's talent. "Any time you coach high school you know you're graduating people every year, so you have an idea of what you can do. The players, I know they were apprehensive about what we could do as a team because they saw the players that we had lost. I know that they were concerned because they had voiced that a couple of times to me. ... We would tell them what they could do and that they needed to work hard, and they bought into that."
SVCA (19-4-3) won six of its first nine matches to open the season, but Wheelock said the Patriots' season reached its turning point following a 1-0 loss to New Covenant on April 10 during a three-day tournament at Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg.
The Patriots had lost junior midfielder Hannah McGann (18 goals, team-high 15 assists) to an injury in their 2-1 loss to Handley the week before, and SVCA "performed really bad" without her in their match against New Covenant, Wheelock said.
"We hadn't been playing the style that we had wanted to. We had just been hanging in games and not creating opportunities," Wheelock said. "After that game we talked for a long time and went through the idea of we've got to come into games and rather than worry about a win or loss, we've got to play the way we want to."
SVCA responded by thumping Southwest Virginia Home School, 5-0, the following day. The Patriots fell to Liberty Christian, 2-1, on the final day of the tournament on April 12, but they wouldn't lose a match for the remainder of the season, a span of 14 games.
When McGann returned to action following the tournament, "we were a whole different animal," Wheelock said.
The Patriots were victimized by injuries again in the inaugural NACA tournament in Dayton, Tennessee, as starting sweeper Grace Snyder (11 goals) went down with a head laceration during the second match and missed the remainder of the tournament. Freshman midfielder Alex Yarnall was hobbled later in the tournament with a leg injury that was initially believed to be a bad bruise. Yarnall battled through the injury for the final five games of the season, and it was revealed after the season that Yarnall's injury was in fact a fracture in the fibula just below her knee, Wheelock said.
Despite the injuries, SVCA still managed to rumble through the five-game NACA tournament and beat Providence Academy (Tennessee), 1-0, for the national championship on May 9.
"Our girls just really came in very focused, really looked to control the ball every game and out-possessed teams throughout the tournament, created a number of opportunities," Wheelock said.
SVCA rode that momentum into the VACA tournament held the following week in Martinsville. The Patriots allowed just one goal in the three-game tournament and captured the program's second VACA state championship with a 1-0 win over rival Fresta Valley on May 17.
"I felt like the first half of the championship we played a little bit nervous, but then we started loosening up, hitting some quick one-two passes and getting the ball moving," Wheelock said. "Then our leadership stepped up when it needed to."
Wheelock, who has also coached SVCA's boys soccer team since 2007, recently returned from aiding with a soccer camp as part of a mission trip to Colombia with the sports-based ministry SCORE International.
His next soccer venture is to start up his usual offseason player development program at SVCA in preparation for next season.
The Patriots lose just two seniors off this spring's team and figure to be strong again next year, although the graduation of VACA Player of the Year and NACA All-American Megan Norton (29 goals, 11 assists) will certainly be a big blow to the Patriots' attack.
"We'll have a lot of returning talent. Those two are big losses, but there are going to be girls who step in and fill in for those two," Wheelock said of Norton and fellow senior Katie Wykoff. "We're excited for what's coming back. We're excited for what will be coming in. We're looking forward to it."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD