WHEELERSBURG — So, what will Wheelersburg’s boys soccer squad do for an encore?
Well, when you capture an ever-elusive regional championship for the first time in program history, it’s kind of cool to try it again.
And, if you poll these Pirates —despite the significant, even historic, graduation losses and opt-outs — they seem set, perhaps even hell bent, on repeating that feat.
“They are always going to believe that they can,” said eighth-year Wheelersburg head coach Jon Estep. “A lot of it is going to depend on how quickly we grow throughout the season. Things are not going to come as easy at times as they did last year. We’re not relying on one kid to replace Aaron Jolly and all the goals that he scored. Or Eric Green and as good as he was in goal with our back line in front of him. It’s going to be a collection of kids going to do it.”
Already, the 2021 Pirates are off to a perfect 4-0 start —both overall and in Southern Ohio Conference Division II competition.
Estep said winning again the SOC II is job one, but blazing another outstanding tournament trail — and even winning the region again —isn’t too far from his and his Pirates’ minds.
But, only such lofty expectations can be met due to everyday improvement from this band of Pirates — plus the trusting factor from what Wheelersburg went through a season ago.
In fact, it wasn’t until August, in the middle of the month, that the Pirates knew for sure they would even have a season —thanks to the coronavirus situation and its impact on Ohio’s full-contact sports at that time.
The Pirates practiced all summer as if they would play, and kept themselves healthy throughout the entire fall.
Estep indeed said just being there, and doing as instructed, made a difference in their decorated 21-1 season —as their only defeat was against eventual Division III state champion Cincinnati Mariemont in the state semifinals.
The Division III district championship was Wheelersburg’s eighth all-time, but its first since 2013.
Of course, winning the regional title was a program novelty —and they accomplished it with zero coronavirus quarantines.
“We didn’t know what to expect coming into the year because of COVID. We were going to get to play? Were we not going to get to play? How many games would we play? Football season was knocked down four games (from 10 to six in regular season) before they started playoffs. To think we would get a full season in and play 22 games and have the season we had, it was very nice to sit back and look back on it like we accomplished something really good,” explained Estep. “A lot of it went into the summer. Last summer was so easy with the COVID, because nobody had anywhere to go. We had 30 guys here almost every night throughout the summer training for the season. It was just soccer last summer for these guys to get out of the house. They couldn’t do much else. This year, it was a normal offseason with people taking vacations, practicing for your winter sports or spring sports along with soccer. I really think these guys focusing solely on soccer last summer really contributed to what we were able to accomplish. Everybody was here and all in every day. Combine the group of kids that we had with them taking care of themselves and their families throughout the fall, we knew we had something special. It was the one thing that was normal to them.”
And, what —or rather whom —was normal, or even extraordinary, were Wheelersburg’s all-Ohio honorees.
For the boys, senior forward Aaron Jolly was a three-peat all-Ohioan and a repeat first-teamer —after twice being named the Division III Southeast District Player of the Year.
Jolly also graduated as Wheelersburg’s all-time goal-scoring leader, racking up 117 markers over his impressive four years.
He had 48 of them as a senior, and is the second Pirate in school history to twice be named Southern Ohio Conference Division II and Southeast District (Division III) Player of the Year —while also being the second player in program history to be named all-Ohio three times.
He is the third Wheelersburg player to be bestowed first-team all-Ohio.
Jolly also ended his Pirate playing days with 50 career assists, as he owns not only the most goals for a career, but he is tied for the most goals scored in a single Wheelersburg match.
Against South Webster last season, Jolly scored a goal eight seconds into the contest —thus tying the record for the fastest goal scored.
His top-10 school records list is lengthy, but he ranks second thru fifth in nine other categories —whether for assists or goals.
While Jolly was easily the Pirates’ primary offensive force, very few goals got by goalkeeper Eric Green —who garnered second-team all-state accolades.
The last line of defense for Wheelersburg’s iron wall of a back line, Green made 78 saves in his senior season —with a save percentage of 86-percent.
Prior to the state semifinal loss, the Wheelersburg defense allowed just seven goals all season — and posted 15 shutouts in its 22 total matches.
Until Mariemont amounted five goals, only Unioto with two had scored more than one goal in any one match against the Pirates all season.
Also graduated are stalwart defenders and/or midfielders Logan Davis, Lane Jordan, Carter McCorkle and Aidan Wright.
In addition, two Pirates instrumental in their Region 11 championship victory over Grandview Heights —offensively Braxton Sammons and defensively Josh Boggs — focused exclusively on football for their senior year.
“Those guys were the core of what we did. I just hope that these guys which were part of their practice every day and part of watching them play, it really has stuck with them moving into this year,” said the coach.
Estep admitted that the Pirates’ depth isn’t what it was, and their numbers dipped from 30 to 23.
Still, there are four returning starters —including seniors Jacob Saxby (forward/midfield) and Preslee Etterling (defense).
Etterling is a three-year starter who anchors the defense, while the four-year starter Saxby provides the most experience of the front half-dozen.
Max Hagans, a speedy sophomore forward, headlines that front —which also includes senior Nathan Sylvia and junior Jackson Schwamburger.
Sylvia, often times the first Pirate off the bench last season, was —according to Estep —the “best 12th man in our area”.
Other role-playing Pirates which are already key cogs to this season’s machine include sophomores Connor Estep and Tyler Sommer, juniors Gavin Bradley and Nolan Wright, and seniors Austin Collier and Braxton Rase.
Another senior, Gavin Rase, replaces Green in goal.
“All these guys have the opportunity to show their value and experience they gained last year, practicing against those guys (graduated seniors) every day and working to become better. These are guys we are going to count on,” said Coach Estep. “They are excited about stepping into new roles and I believe they are ready for that.”
And already, Wheelersburg is undertaking its trek to try and repeat as regional champions.
Estep said the Pirates’ blueprint for their encore is in fact in place.
“We have to trust what we did last year. The competitive practices that we were able to put together and the environment we created last year with competition and being ready when your time is called, we’re starting to see some of that again this year. We’re leaning on that experience,” he said. “It’s a process. We’re excited for it and these guys are looking forward to it as well.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved