Owen soccer nets perfect season in Western Highlands Conference
There was never much doubt about the outcome of Owen’s match with Mountain Heritage on May 3. As they had in most of their other nine wins over Western Highlands Conference opponents this season, the Owen Warlassies controlled the pace for the most of the match and won, 6-0.
That quiet dominance has been the signature not only of a team that finished the regular season undefeated in the conference, but also of a program that hasn’t lost a conference match in more than a year.
The Warlassies were a force the WHC in 2018, outscoring opponents 45-1. To find similar dominance in 2A soccer, one wouldn’t need to leave the school - the boys team, the Warhorses, finished the fall season 10-0 in the conference. The boys outscored the other five teams 40-6.
The teams, both coached by David Fiest, are a combined 20-0 in the conference this school year. That’s not an easy feat, according to Owen athletic director Anthony Lee, himself a veteran baseball and football coach in the notoriously competitive conference.
“Conference games are the most important games that we play,” Lee said. “Every time you win one it establishes a little more pressure for the next game. When you get to a handful of wins, everybody is trying to knock you off.”
Fiest is in his 10th season as a soccer coach at the school. He was an assistant before he became the Warlassies head coach in 2010 and the Warhorses head coach in 2012. The stability he's brought to the program has allowed him to build a solid foundation, Lee said.
“Year in and year out, our soccer teams are competing for the top spot in our conference,” he said. “(Fiest) puts a lot of time and energy into those programs, and he knows a lot about the game.”
He also “knows how to keep the kids focused,” Lee added.
Allen Raynor is in his first season as the head coach of both soccer programs at Madison High School, which plays in the WHC. He's been watching the Patriots take on Owen for the past six years.
"The first thing that comes to mind when I think of the teams at Owen is how organized and disciplined they are," he said. "The players always know the game plan, and you can't fall asleep against them because they'll make you pay."
The Warlassies beat the Patriots twice this season. Owen went to Marshall and beat Madison 2-0 before beating them 1-0 at home on April 30.
"We enjoy the test of playing against a team that brings that level of competition," Raynor said. "Owen always tests a team's ability to concentrate for 80 minutes."
Junior C.J. Graham has been locked in for the Warlassies all season. The goalkeeper, who Fiest said “has been stellar all year,” played a crucial role in the team's WHC success.
Graham allowed only four goals in the regular season and one in conference play.
“She makes our defense better,” Fiest said. “She is the leader on the field because she organizes the defense and constantly keeps them position. She helps the defense eliminate shots on her.”
The defense is young, according to the coach, and Graham’s leadership has been crucial to its development this season.
The Warlassies are a young team, which may be bad news for the rest of the conference. Their offensive leaders, Mikayla Roseman and Camryn Bolick, are sophomores. Roseman scored 18 goals this season to lead the team, while Bolick added 15 of her own. The ball control and elusiveness of the duo makes it difficult for opposing defenses to keep them contained.
Brad Horrell is in his second year as an assistant coach for both programs under Fiest. He first met the coach when Fiest was playing soccer for Mars Hill University and Horrell was playing soccer for Madison High.
Fiest and the players' passion for the sport creates a bond, Horrell said, that is the key to the program's success. The players feed off of Fiest's love for the game, and the young ones are quick to buy into his system.
“Soccer is important to him, and he makes it his goal to go out there and help players improve,” Horrell said. “But he also develops relationships with the players and wants to have a positive impact in their lives.”
Fiest “puts more time into his players than most coaches I’ve ever seen,” Horrell said.
“He gets to know the individuals and then molds each one into a soccer player,” he continued. “It’s truly a unique approach.”
It’s been a successful one too.The Warhorses and Warlassies have qualified for the NCHSAA playoffs every season under Fiest. The boys team has advanced to the third round each of the past two seasons.
Injuries contributed to a first-round exit from the 2017 playoffs for the Warlassies, who lost 5-0 last May to Central Academy of Technology and Arts in a game played at Montreat College’s Howard Fisher Memorial Field.
While an undefeated conference season is a first in the history of the Warlassies program, the team is not satisfied, Fiest said.
"Winning the conference is always a goal for the team," he said. "After that, though, we really want to make a run as deep into the playoffs as possible."
Two of the Warlassies' three losses this season were against 3A competition. The other was against Smoky Mountain, which finished the regular season in second place in the competitive Mountain 6 conference behind former WHC powerhouse Hendersonville.
Tough nonconference matches on the schedule is the standard for Fiest's programs.
"I look for other 2A opponents with traditionally strong programs," he said. "I try to schedule teams we could end up seeing in the playoffs, like East Henderson, Franklin and Smoky Mountain."
As Fiest prepares his players for this year's playoffs, which get underway May 9, he acknowledges that winning 20 straight games in the conference is a big accomplishment for his players.
"They put in so much work, and student-athletes have to deal with a lot," he said. "We have players who balance such hectic lives and are pulled in all kinds of directions; I really appreciate the sacrifices they make for these teams."