Injuries do little to slow Warlassies through first half of the season
As the final seconds ticked off the clock in Warhorse Stadium on March 29, the Warlassies were putting an exclamation mark on the first half of their season.
Injuries plagued the Owen girls' soccer team before the season even began but a six-game winning streak, capped by a 5-0 victory at home over North Henderson, offered a glimpse into the capabilities of the 2019 squad.
Last season the Warlassies posted an undefeated record (10-0) in the Western Highland Conference on their way to a 16-4-1 overall mark and a trip to Salisbury, where they fell in the third round of the playoffs.
Head coach David Fiest, in his 10th season at the helm for the Warlassies, has guided the Owen boy's soccer team to a 20-0 record in the WHC over the past two seasons. Despite losing several key seniors from the 2018 Warlassies roster to graduation, the coach came into the season expecting his team to repeat as conference champions.
“I expect us to win conference, which would give us an automatic bid in the playoffs," he said. "But those are the only expectations I have right now because we have the personnel and the ability to do those things."
However, an injury suffered by senior goalkeeper C.J. Graham in the off-season left Owen without one of its top players to open the season.
Graham, who committed to Lipscomb University last November, attends Nesbitt Discovery Academy in Asheville, which does not field a soccer program. She allowed only 1 goal in 10 conference games a season ago.
"I got kicked in the hand during a club match," Graham said of injury that kept her out of the goal through the first eight games of the year. "I had to get surgery and miss a few games. It was hard watching everybody out there because I just wanted to get out there and help."
Other Warlassies like Brooklyn Roland and Maggie Abernathy also suffered injuries early this season and adjusting to the absence of key players proved challenging for Owen as the season began.
The Warlassies kicked off the campaign with a 6-0 loss to Reynolds before playing Providence Academy to a 0-0 tie. They fell to 0-2-1 with a 2-0 loss to Pisgah.
Graham's versatility allowed her to return to the field before she was cleared to resume her goalkeeping duties.
"It was key for us to get her back on the field as soon as we could," Fiest said. "We were able to get her out there playing in the field and her impact was significant."
The Warlassies picked up their first win of the season on March 15, with a 3-2 win at home over Enka before a dominating 7-0 victory on the road against McDowell three days later. Graham scored 2 goals against the Titans.
Owen won their next three matches and Graham scored 3 goals and added 7 assists in five games in the field.
It was the senior leadership of the team, according to junior Kelsey Beck, that helped the Warlassies get on track.
"We have a younger team, but we have one of the strongest bonds I've seen," said Beck, who has been on the varsity squad since her freshman year. "We have great senior leaders and their experience is helpful when you have a lot of young players."
Among the six seniors on the Owen roster are last year's leading scorer, striker Camryn Bolick and winger Kayla Roseman. The duo played a key role in the success of the team a season ago.
"I think our team chemistry is probably our strength," Beck said. "We communicate fluidly on the field and that's something we're getting even better at as the season goes on."
As Graham prepared to return to goal Fiest's squad on March 29, the match would be the coach's first look at the team as he envisioned it going into the season.
"Not once have I put the team that I want, with everybody in their correct positions, on the field," he said. "Nor have we had a single practice with every single person here. We've been putting players in positions I had no intentions of them playing."
Even with an impressive winning streak and a 3-0 conference record heading into their April 1 home match against Polk, there remains a lot of unanswered questions for Fiest's team.
"We have some things nailed down at this point," the coach said. "But my early takeaway from the season is that I don't really know yet what our true potential is."
With all of the pieces finally in place, Fiest and assistant coach Ray Nightingale will evaluate the team and make adjustments.
Graham's versatility could lead to her seeing more time in the field, according to the coach.
"Khadijah Davis did a great job filling in for C.J. when she was out," he said. "And obviously C.J. showed us she cant really help this team in the field too."
With a healthy roster, the Warlassies will employ a balanced attack as they try to post a second consecutive undefeated conference season.
"We have five girls on this roster who have scored five or more goals so far," Fiest said. "That's something that will play in our favor as the season progresses."
That kind of effort could help the Warlassies improve on an already impressive first half, the coach continued.
"When teams talk about us there isn't a specific player to look at and say 'watch out for her,'" Fiest said. "We're getting production from all over the field and if we can keep that up and stay healthy then we should be successful."