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Tyler Grate looks to lead Hiland Golf team.

Tyler Grate looks to lead Hiland Golf team.

That first winning season has been an elusive one for the West Holmes Lady Knights soccer program.

For a while, last season didn’t seem like it would be the year that Josh Wengerd’s team would finally bust down that wall and climb above the .500 mark. Mired in a so-so season, at 5-6-1, the lights went on, so to speak, and suddenly the white hot Lady Knights began a streak never experienced before in the history of the school’s girls soccer.

A win became a two game winning streak. That grew to three in the first game of the Ohio Cardinal Conference tournament with an upset win over No. 3 seed Mansfield Madison. The fourth straight came at the expense of No. 2 seed Clear Fork. Straight win number five was in the OCC title game, where the team topped Lexington, which had upset top-seeded Wooster.

Now tromping around in uncharted territory, the team ran its winning streak to six with a win over Tri-Valley in tournament play. A 1-0 District final win over River View, a team that has perennially used West Holmes as a doormat, and suddenly the Lady Knights were 12-6-1. Only a Regional loss to 13-3-2 Richmond curtailed the stunning campaign, but West Holmes had not only experienced a winning season for the first time, they had blown the covers clean off the record books.

That 12-7-1 sounds mighty good when you’ve been searching for .500 for so long.

Now, it is up to a new breed of youngsters to gel with a seasoned and solid core of veterans to continue that success and carry over the excitement that last season generated.

Last year, the mantra was, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish that counts. This year, how they start may well determine how they finish.

“It was an emotional roller coaster,” said Wengerd of last season. “I think all of us could kind of see how that run at the end of the year could happen. We were playing great as a team. We were confident and we had lost several games during the regular season which we felt we should have won. We were gaining experience, and it all started to roll. We all felt we were capable of that run. We knew the potential was there. I’m just not sure too many other people saw it.”

Momentum and confidence are things that can’t be gauged on charts and put into numerical formulas. You either have them or you don’t.

It is up to Wengerd and the coaching staff to continue to build on what the team created last season, and they feel like the table is set for another great campaign.

Although they lost eight talented players from last year’s team, including five starters, there is a solid core back for Wengerd. Both junior Abby Callahan and sophomore Mallory Wahl give the Lady Knights a huge upside on offense, having been integral parts of the offense last year. Shelby Harris returns in goal, giving West Holmes a solid veteran presence in the net. Middies Alex Brown and Courtney Kozak return to add stability in the middle of the field. Alexis Rolince returns as a key defender.

And to go with the solid veteran leadership is a core of youngsters who are hungry and athletic. Sophomore Alex Starr and Nicole Strouse are both first-year players who are very athletic. Junior Shelbee Shaffer has already shown she is capable of contributing, scoring the team’s first goal of the year at Triway. Her classmate Madeline Brewer, a JV defender last year, and a player Wengerd said has proven she belongs and vastly improved, bolsters the defense. And freshmen Meredith Snow is on one wing in the middle, while her classmate Hannah Schlegel, a dynamo of non-stop energy on the field, brings a huge amount of athleticism to the game.

It is simply a matter of the team continuing to gel under Wengerd, and he feels that the momentum they picked up last year can only feed the process.

“They’re hungry,” said Wengerd of his team. “They raised the bar last season and now they want to continue to raise it. There’s a lot of passion here in these kids, and they expect a whole lot this year.”

What has helped the Lady Knights in their pursuit of building a program is that many of the players are now investing time in playing for the local Buckeye United team and/or the Ohio Strykers, a summer team out of Wooster. There, where the competition is great, the ability to work on foot skills and learning how to play the game aggressively, and thinking ahead rather than a passive, reactive approach, has made kids game-ready when they get to the varsity level.

That has given the players an improved outlook and newfound confidence, and goals that used to be along the lines of not finishing last in the OCC have changed, and become more than reaching .500.

They carry the confidence of winning, and that makes all the difference in the world.

“Buckeye United and the Ohio Strykers have been a huge plus for us,” said Wengerd. He said that the school has toyed with the idea of creating a junior high program, but budget restraints and lack of fields for practice for more teams is not conducive to that, so playing for club teams has become the best mode of improvement.

He also said that he knows players are different, and team styles will vary from year to year, but once you establish winning, that gives a real central focus to a program.

Yet despite the surge last year, Wengerd understands that it has to happen more than once to have it instilled in the program.

“It’s been a longtime coming, but that winning season, that energy and that feeling that we can get the job done is infectious,” said Wengerd. “It’s such a positive energy around practice now. The hope is that our run last year and our success will influence this year. Hopefully that feeling stays with us, but we know we have to work that much harder to maintain it. We’re not going to surprise anyone this year.

“And it all begins long before these kids step onto the varsity field of play. It starts when they make the commitment when they are younger to learning the game, and playing it, so when they do get up here they understand it and can step right in, even as freshmen, and contribute.

“Going through what we went through last year, and building that first winning season was maybe the biggest hurdle we had to clear. Maybe now that the wall has come down, this program will continue to gain momentum and grow. It just comes down to hard work and commitment.”

Hard work and commitment: Both of those attributes come much easier when you’re winning games, and West Holmes certainly did that last season.

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