FAIRMONT — Everything about the moment at the time — the situation, the primary factors that crafted the situation, the sort of head-to-head individual showdown to decide a team-wide outcome — embodied the tug-of-war that would ensue later.
North Marion senior forward Aeriss Efaw teed up a direct kick and East Fairmont goalkeeper Myleena Starsick girded herself in the net to receive it with the Region I, Section 2 championship hanging in the balance and the clock ticking under three minutes to play.
The moment ultimately decided which program claimed a monumental spot in the Region I title game at the time, but a month later and it was also symbolic of the excruciating race between Efaw and Starsick for Times West Virginian Girls’ Soccer Player of the Year.
In the end, Efaw edged Starsick by a hair and was selected as the TWV Player of the Year, while Starsick was named the Times West Virginian Goalkeeper/Defender of the Year.
The tight race between Efaw and Starsick was a testament to the merits and accomplishments of both players as well as the vital importance to their respective teams.
The crux of the case for Efaw was fairly straightforward as the best player on the county’s best team. The Huskies finished 2019 at 14-6 with the program’s first-ever sectional championship, going 3-0 versus East Fairmont and Fairmont Senior, and Efaw was the heartbeat of North’s on-field identity and play-style dynamics.
“She’s a student of the game,” North Marion coach Nelson Elliott said. “Her presence on the field was so important to the team because of her ability to see everything that was going on.
“I’ll want her to go outside (with a pass), but she sees somebody open inside and she makes a beautiful pass. That happens all the time. It happens to her dad (assistant coach Denny Efaw), it happens to me, it happens to (assistant) Garrett (Mock), all three of us are trying to tell her to do one thing, but she sees it better than we do.”
In the latter part of the season, Efaw even came to NMHS’s coaching staff with a suggestion: To move her out of the midfield and to the left forward spot alongside Karlie Denham and Megan Higgins in the team’s 4-3-3 in an attempt to further juice up the offense.
“We didn’t really need me in the middle because we had Mary (Elliott), Rya (Frye) and Brooke (Markley) — we had such strong midfielders I didn’t need to be there,” Efaw said. “I’m just more comfortable (at left forward) so I thought I would be more useful; I could connect with Karlie and Megan better.”
That versatility and adaptability is perhaps the largest feather in Efaw’s cap. Her technical abilities were supreme, from her creative ball handling to her visionary passing, but it was her adeptness and mindfulness in toggling through and then utilizing them depending on matchups, circumstances, etc. that really put Efaw on another level as an offensive fulcrum.
“Whenever you play with more people and play against more people, you just pick up more things,” said Efaw, whose played soccer since she was 9, cycling through various school, rec and travel teams, while also playing within the Olympic Development Program.
Efaw, who was named the West Virginia High School Soccer Coaches’ Association Region I Player of the Year and first team all-state, doesn’t boast raw statistical totals that amaze — Elliott said she scored just 15 goals at most this season — but watch the Huskies and one can see she’s the lifeblood of everything the team does, a true ceiling raiser on the field and a team pillar off of it.
“She isn’t a rah, rah type leader, but she puts forth effort to the point where you feel bad if you’re not putting out the same effort,” Coach Elliott said. “She holds herself to a very high standard, and when we’re behind, she’s upset with herself, she’s upset with how the world is rotating.”
“I’ve always wanted to win, and I’ve always been trying to prove myself since I was young,” Efaw said.
The argument for Starsick is a bit more layered and complicated, with a lot of it stemming from her position at goalkeeper. Sure, she can lock down opponents, but just how much can she impact the game?
“She helps us all the way around,” said East Fairmont coach Eric Wright. “It’s not just defending shots, it’s every facet of the game.“
Starsick’s plays out of the back, be it working it through her own switches or her punts and throws, revved up East’s transition into offensive attacks, Wright said.
Still, there’s a limit to how much she could assist the Bees’ offense, which was prone to scoring droughts. There’s an argument that should only bolster Starsick’s case if anything. East Fairmont’s identity and winning formula revolved around defense in every way, with Starsick as the epicenter.
“She’s just a sophomore, but she’s got a great understanding of the game and she’s back there communicating and talking to our defense,” Wright said.
Starsick, who was an all-state first teamer among coaches and all-state second teamer among media — the only county player to make both — tallied 100-plus saves for EFHS this season and regularly drew unprompted praise from opposing coaches. She was a marvel in the net, making multiple highwire saves per game that perhaps no other goalkeeper in the state could make. There were games against top teams — Bridgeport, Buckhannon-Upshur, Philip Barbour — where Starsick and the EFHS defense single handily kept the Bees competitive.
Yes, in comparison to Efaw, it’s hard to point to a game on East’s schedule that Starsick swung from a loss to a win, but as Wright pointed out toward the end of the season, the Bees battled to a whopping seven ties in 2019 against teams they posted a minus-27 goal differential against in 2018.
“I remember last year, I was not the strongest mentally and it dragged me down in a lot of games where I’d be hard on myself and it would mess up my game,” Starsick said in regards to her biggest individual improvement. “I think a lot of it is being confident after you get scored on because you’re not going to make every save, it’s just not possible.
“I had to teach myself it’s not completely my fault.”
In that vein, that’s why the aforementioned sectional title game showdown between Efaw and Starsick is such a suitable flashbulb moment in the TWV Player of the Year race. On the one hand, East Fairmont wouldn’t have even been in that situation without Starsick, but Efaw and the Huskies were just a smidgen better.
Efaw and Starsick were obviously both locks on the TWV’s all-county team. Starsick takes the goalkeeper spot, where she’s joined defensively by a backline of teammate Kaylee Kenney, North Marion’s Mayson Elza and Fairmont Senior’s Alisha Hayhurst.
Efaw will swap back to her original position in the midfield for roster construction purposes, where she’s joined by Fairmont Senior’s Avary King and North Marion’s Mary Elliott.
At forward, all three county teams are represented, with North Marion’s Karlie Denham, Fairmont Senior’s Kate Gribben, and East Fairmont’s Becky Buchanan taking the three spots.
Finally, to round out the squad, Fairmont Senior’s Sidney Greene will slot into the utility position.