FAIRMONT — Just before Wednesday’s practice at East-West Stadium, East Fairmont coach Eric Wright dropped a juicy nugget about the coaching ranks in Marion County soccer.
With long-time Fairmont Senior boys’ coach Jim DeNardi, who’s been dubbed the grandfather of Marion County soccer, and his veteran assistant Darrin Paul officially swapping the roles of head coach and lead assistant this fall, Wright is now the longest-tenured head coach in county soccer as he’s enters his sixth season as the head man for the Lady Bees.
Six years in, however, may have felt more like nine or 10 last season as Wright and the Bees dragged through a trying campaign that never seemed to align on smooth path forward.
On the field, the Bees’ once electric go-go style of quick counters and connected defense splintered into a splotchy, uphill grind. And off the field, the team’s hallmark family-like camaraderie under Wright self-admittedly
withered, becoming the preamble to the bumpy overall season.
“As soon as last season was over, I pretty much got right back to work focused on team building and team bonding,” said Wright, who admitted he took a thorough look inward at what he himself could do better, even visiting with several Mountain East Conference college programs this summer in an attempt to refine his practice routine and proficiency for communicating with his players. “What could we do to get us back to where we had been in the past, because last year was not indicative of the team I want to put out as a whole. I don’t just mean soccer-wise; we needed to play better soccer than we did, but more than anything, if we would’ve come together as a team, we would’ve played better.”
Nearly every coach believes in and preaches the value of culture, but it’s practically been a campaigning slogan for Wright since he took over at East Fairmont. He’s been vocal, public and honest about how much weight it carries within the EFHS program and how it spreads, for better or worse, to every element and every level of his Lady Bees.
“Little things matter that you just don’t realize,” Wright said. “We just needed to regroup.”
The initial signs from this year’s team — following the team’s annual training camp at the end of July and the first few fall practices — suggest the Lady Bees will resemble the tight-knit versions of seasons past under Wright, he said.
There’s been a re-investment in the coaching staff, where Breana Wright, Coach Wright’s daughter and a four-year member of the Fairmont State women’s team, joins the staff as the lead assistant after graduating from FSU in May and landing a teaching job at EFHS this summer. Katey Sharpe, a former player at Morgantown High School where she graduated from in 2014, also joins EFHS as a volunteer assistant along with volunteer assistant holdover Emily Gallagher, who also played soccer collegiately.
And the players have recaptured the family-like aura and ethos as well, Wright said, led by the team’s cast of eight seniors. With senior midfielder Stevee Brock, who Wright called “a natural leader”, and senior defender Morgan Gaskill, who volunteered to move from outside mid to outside defender to help the team out in a show of leadership, at the forefront, the seniors met with Wright several times this summer, he said, to provide input and offer ideas of what to do differently this season compared to last.
“They knew they wanted their senior season to be better than last year,” Wright said. “All these girls have bought in as much as any group I’ve had to be honest.
“The coaches have made a commitment to the players and the players have made a commitment to the coaches that we’re in this together.”
One can pass that off as honeymoon-stage optimism on Wright’s part or preseason coach speak, intangibles that sound admirable but only go so far when the true on-field action starts and talent and skill reign supreme.
Wright’s ardent, however, the two phases are permanently linked. Off-field discord will spoil on-field cohesion, and locker-room harmony will boost in-game symmetry. And East Fairmont’s roster is built to reflect that belief this season, according to Wright.
“We don’t have a superstar,” Wright admitted. “But right now, I’ve got 14-15 girls who are fighting for a starting job with another 10 girls who are out here really pushing them. And I’m not going to say none of them are standing out, it’s just that all of them are playing at a good level right now. Everyday they’re making each other better.”
The collective strength of EFHS’s roster will be at the crux of their play style, Wright said, one that will involve all three levels — backline, midfield, forwards — in mounting counters and ideally rediscovering the quick-hitting through balls that was EFHS’s calling card two seasons ago.
Wright’s still experimenting with the team’s formation, perhaps turning to a traditional 4-4-2 as opposed to the 4-5-1 the Lady Bees have played in the past. Whatever the case, it will be a sum-of-the-parts ideology, which will play into the team’s fairly even and deep roster with lots of returning players having been allotted a health share of minutes last season.
Brock and Gaskill are the most experienced players on the team, the lone members who got legit playing time on EFHS’s breakthrough squad in 2017, but fellow seniors Hope Rogers at midfield and Tatum Oates on the backline were cast into heavy-minute roles last season.
Returning juniors Makayla Black and Lilly Miller also saw plenty of time in 2018, and fellow classmate Kaylee Kenney, a backup goalkeeper last season, will transition into a defender this year.
Defender Rylee Church and forward Becky Buchanan are the two linchpins from the junior class. Church is the lone returning starter on the backline, someone who displayed a nascent feel in 2018 for aggressively challenging ball handlers on the flanks.
And Buchanan came on down the stretch up top last season, a player who wasn’t the most polished in terms of tactical skills, such as touch and handling, but who made it up for it with a scrappiness to battle for position and a will to pursue even off-target entry passes. After a dedicated offseason of honing her footwork and handles, according to Wright, Buchanan is a potential breakout player in the conference.
Elsewhere, Makayla Comas was a mainstay in the midfield as a freshman last season, and Wright said this year’s freshmen crop may produce two more game-to-game contributors in Mackenzie Moyer and Madison Lott.
Then there’s Myleena Starsick, EFHS’s returning sophomore goalkeeper and the Lady Bees’ ace in the hole.
Starsick displayed an understanding of the position’s nuance last season and never wilted despite having to fend off a barrage of shots as the primary victim of a leaky EFHS backline. In Year 2, her adroitness in the net will keep the Lady Bees in a lot of games, contests Wright’s willing to wager will flip in EFHS’s favor behind a more spirited and united group equipped to compete for a full 80 minutes.
Email Bradley Heltzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bradheltzTWV.