2017 Girls Soccer Coach of the Year: Wheelock leads Patriots on successful national title hunt

Dustin Wheelock

STEPHENS CITY – Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy’s drive to achieve the 2017 National Association of Christian Athletes Division I championship began well before the season did. In fact, as the 2016 season was coming to a close, the Patriots were already talking about returning to Dayton, Tennessee, for the annual tournament.

SVCA won the NACA Division II title last spring, and while head coach Dustin Wheelock said last week that the Patriots felt a sense of pride in the accomplishment, it wasn’t fully satisfactory. They wanted more.

Moments after that 2016 victory, Wheelock recalled, Hannah Max set in motion the Patriots’ 2017 national championship hunt with a definitive statement: “We’re going to win Division I next year.” And so, immediately after the 2016 season, the Patriots began prepping for 2017.

“What was nice about it is that there’s a goal that’s set and there was work that was put in before the season,” Wheelock said, “and then there was work put in during the season, and every day it was easy to motivate the girls.”

By the time SVCA returned to Tennessee last month, Wheelock said, the Patriots were playing their best soccer. In turn, SVCA outscored opponents 11-1 in three matches in pool play to earn a spot in the Division I title game, then beat Dayspring Christian Academy, 5-3, for the championship.

The NACA Division I title, SVCA’s first since 2014, was the highlight of a successful season for the Patriots under Wheelock, The Northern Virginia Daily’s 2017 Girls Soccer Coach of the Year, that included a 24-2-1 overall record and a Mason-Dixon Christian Conference tournament championship.

This year’s Patriots boasted a lethal balance of scoring and defense – SVCA averaged five goals per game while limiting opponents to less than one a contest – but Wheelock said it was the team’s willingness to learn and adjust as the season progressed that stood out most.

“It was a very easy team to coach, a very talented team, but there were no egos on the team,” said Wheelock, who has coached SVCA’s girls soccer team since 2009.

“The challenge as a coach is figuring out what’s gonna fit best and getting everybody to move in that direction. And I think what really stood out to me soccer-wise was just the ease of getting everybody on the same page and moving in that direction.”

Offensively, the Patriots were powered by a pair of 30-goal scorers in sophomore striker Sarah Max (35 goals, 13 assists) and her older sister Hannah (30 goals, 18 assists). Rebekah Max (18), Isabel Lauderback (16) and Leah Goben (13) rounded out the double-figure goal scorers for SVCA, which boasted five of the area’s top seven leaders in that category this past season.

After a 2016 season that saw Hannah and Sarah Max score on “brilliant individual goals” on a regular basis as they carried SVCA’s attack, Wheelock said he knew the Patriots were heading in a more balanced direction offensively this spring when Goben struck for the team’s first goal of the spring in the season-opening win over James Wood.

“It was just kind of for us, as the first goal of the season, as a sign of just like, ‘yes,’ because last year sometimes we relied on just these individual great moments,” Wheelock said. “We still got those this year but it didn’t need to happen all the time.”

Somewhat lost in SVCA’s scoring barrage throughout the spring was a stout Patriot defense that posted 15 shutouts and allowed more than one goal just five times in 27 matches.

Wheelock praised the defensive efforts of sophomore Clare Lauderback, a first-year Patriot who was “very clean with her touches”; seniors Anna Schloemer and Cat Eppard, who played “wing back” positions and served as the team’s primary outside attackers as well as right and left back, respectively; sophomore speedster Cora Snyder, a key defensive returnee from last year’s squad; and freshman goalkeeper Cori Whisenant, who finished with 63 saves.

“We really had … pretty easily the most potent offense that I’ve coached,” Wheelock said, “but our defense is probably the best defense that I’ve coached.”

SVCA will lose seven seniors to graduation ahead of the 2018 season, but Wheelock said he hopes the 2017 squad’s impact will be felt well into the future.

“This is one of those teams that I think really leaves a legacy that sets the tone for teams to aspire to achieve in the future,” he said. “And I think that’s what you want as a team.

“I want our future teams to aspire to be better than them. And that means something, and not just on the field but their character off the field. Just a very passionate group.”