By Scott Herpst
Things are coming full circle for the Oakwood Christian Academy high school soccer program.
Not only do the Eagles have five seniors who have been a part of the program all four years of its existence, but the man who helped get the program off the ground is back as well.
Tony Vona is back on the sidelines after a two-year coaching sabbatical and Vona said it felt “really good” to be back.
“I’m excited to be back and I’m encouraged,” he said. “I’m encouraged by how much these kids have grown. It’s just neat to see all the areas that they have grown in.”
Vona said the number one goal for this season had nothing to do with wins and losses.
“The main thing is just to keep getting better every day, not only as individual footballers, but as a team,” he explained. “We have to get better every day and that’s a number of things like executing, making good passes, getting into the right positions and just having a better understanding of their positions and of the game itself.”
Helping that process along is a senior quintet who has been through the battles and Vona said his seniors have really taken ownership of the team.
“They’ve all been here for four years now and they’re my most experienced players, not only on the field, but off the field,” he said. “They are there to keep the others accountable and to mentor to the younger ones. They are showing them what to expect for the future and giving them an example to follow because we are a small school.”
In the back half of the pitch, John-Jacob McSpadden is a strong defender, who Vona says is also a solid leader and communicator. He’ll receive some help from the team’s “workhorse”, Trevor Hobbs. A tireless, box-to-box player, Hobbs will play in the midfield and provide assistance on defense when needed.
D.J. Terry is another midfielder whose strengths are controlling, dribbling and passing the ball into space to help set up the offense for the final two seniors. Team co-captain Madi Phillips is a hard-working, dedicated player, who Vona says understands the process of her position. The final senior is forward J.J. Lanham, who wears the armband as team captain. Lanham is a goal scorer, who along with Phillips, knows how to put pressure on opposing defenses.
Behind them are five juniors, including veteran goal keeper Garrison Baggett, right-side defender Tyler Epperson and midfielders Woody Hass, Noah Permenter and Benjamin Freeman.
Among the sophomores, Chase Lanham, Thomas Buckles and Andrew Phillips will hold down midfield spots, while Naoki Gilchrist will provide depth on defense.
The roster is rounded out by a group of freshmen that have been part of two consecutive ISC championship teams for Oakwood at the middle school level.
Caleb Epperson will work on the defensive end, while Connor Shankles will back up Baggett in net. Ryan Scarborough will fill in a midfield position, while Scottie Duffie and Sam Lewis are both forwards.
“These freshmen know what victory is and they are bringing that with them,” Vona said. “They’ve had that experience for the past two years now. Compliment that with the seniors and their experience and hopefully that will pay off.”
Vona said communication and confidence will be his team’s keys to victory, while stating that unity is his team’s main strength.
“They play for each other and I saw that (in the first match),” he said. “They came together really well. They don’t play for self out there, they play for each other.”
While Oakwood will still have to navigate a tough schedule that includes more established soccer programs from Tennessee, Vona said he can see that progress is being made.
“We’re closing the gap,” he said. “We can see it happening.”
The Eagles will travel to Collegedale on Thursday to square off with CAYA at 6 p.m. They will be back in Chickamauga on Thursday, Aug, 24 to to do battle with Apostolic of Maryville (Tenn.) at 5:30 p.m.