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North Marion’s Megan Higgins passes upfield during a game last season at Woodcutters Stadium. 

RACHEL — North Marion coach Nelson Elliott has never been bashful in reiterating how he views himself as a bit out of his element as the Lady Huskies’ head honcho.

Though a coaching lifer with decades of experience, Elliott’s forte prior to becoming the team’s coach last summer was in assessing pad leverage on the gridiron or gesturing a hand signal on the diamond.

“Last year I didn’t know anything, and I’ve learned enough to know that I really don’t know anything,” said Elliott, who coached baseball and football at North Marion and football at Fairmont State in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “I have learned enough to realize how far out of my field I was last year. I’m still out in left field right now.”

But Elliott’s venture into a relatively unknown universe on the soccer field last season somehow coincided with the Lady Huskies’ foray into a new stratosphere of Big 10 soccer. NMHS emerged as a sort of wild card in the conference, an up-and-coming program that had the chops to compete and hold their own against the

conference’s top tier when the Huskies were at their best.

They didn’t roll over against quality teams, such as Robert C. Byrd and Bridgeport, pushed reigning state semifinalist Fairmont Senior to the brink in a 1-1 draw in early October, and took care of East Fairmont 6-1 without any hiccups in the postseason sectional semis.

Elliott and the Huskies found their balance between coach and player, discovered their compatability and molded the conditions for what could be a breakthrough 2019 campaign with NMHS returning a well-stocked roster.

“I can’t tell you how enjoyable it’s been for me,” Elliott said. “To be later in my life and later in my teaching career and all of a sudden take up coaching again after 20 years of not coaching, it’s been very fulfilling.

“I appreciate the five seniors I had last year, and I really appreciate the eight seniors this year because I ask them questions and they tell me what they think, and I still listen to them a lot. It’s a good working relationship.”

That batch of eight seniors is the catalyst behind any leveling up in ambitions for NMHS this season. All eight are game-ready, Elliott said, either as certified starters or heavy-minute reserves, with a collective balance across the positional spectrum.

Aeriss Efaw is the proven star, a midfielder who can bend a game’s tempo and flow to her will. Now two years removed from an ACL injury, Efaw is a dynamo in transition flipping the field quickly on counters, while also possessing the control and ball skills to play in tighter spaces.

Mary Elliott, the daughter of Coach Elliott — the primary case of a familial theme that exists across the NMHS coaching staff with lead assistant Denny Efaw as the father of Aeriss, and volunteer assistant Garrett Mock as the older brother of senior defender Kaleigh Mock — is a talented player in her own right, giving the Huskies an invaluable inner midfield combo.

With Efaw and Elliott sopping up possession advantages and initiating offense from the midfield, the junior duo of Karlie Denham and Megan Higgins are ideal fits up top as forwards with the speed to pressure the flanks and the middle on through-ball runs.

Denham popped toward the end of 2018, blending her speed with a shooting power and versatility that belies her size. And Higgins has fluid strides with the height and athleticism to be a go-to option for headers on set pieces.

“They’re both forces offensively,” Coach Elliott said of the pairing.

With Efaw, Elliott, Denham, Higgins and sophomore Paige Zemonick, who got legit playing time last year as a freshman, all due to return this season, NMHS’s 2019 offensive outlook was rosy in the midst of last season. The unexpected addition of senior Rya Frye, who will double up between soccer and cross country this fall, is a further boon.

It was the defensive side that looked a wee bit rickety, with centerback Cam Pyle, two-year starting goalkeeper Abbie Denham, and starting defender Cierra Parker all graduating. But the ban of this year’s senior class slots in nicely to patch those holes and give NMHS a veteran backline.

Between Kaleigh Mock, Kaleigh Eddy, Mayson Elza and Kayla Hoy, the Huskies have a wealth of defense-first seniors, with junior Caitlyn Welch showing strong signs as well thus far in the summer, Coach Elliott said. And in a surprise and one of great luxury, Elliott said this season’s freshmen crop already possesses a thorough foundation in the game.

“They’ve all played at least four or five years and they’re ready to step in,” Elliott said. “They’re very good.”

The brightest of those high school rookies in Olivia Toland and Emma Fulaytar are even in competition to snatch a starting spot on the backline, according to Elliott.

“If you took today’s practice, it looks like they’re ready,” he said, referring to Toland and Fulaytar. “They didn’t make any mistakes, they stepped up, they stole possession and kicked it out when they were supposed to.”

Still, on any given possession, a backline is liable to cave in on itself with one misstep or a slightly misplayed angle, and the Huskies, for all the capable defenders they seem to have, don’t have a proven and vetted star there with the instincts and range to slap on a Band-Aid in a pinch. Pyle, as a centerback captain, and Denham, as an agile goalkeeper, were the team’s closest approximation to that last season, but both are gone, foisting the opportunity to snatch the reins onto one of those aforementioned defenders or the team’s new keeper in sophomore Abby Masters.

“She was the odds-on favorite to be the goalie because we didn’t have to change first names,” Coach Elliott joked. “Abbie was and now Abby is.”

Masters, who qualified for the state track meet as a freshman in the spring in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, has displayed the most aptitude for the keeper role, Elliott said, although she has the foot skills to play almost anywhere. But she’s still gun-shy about barking orders and intel to her veteran teammates.

“We’re trying to get her to talk more,” Elliott said, “because we need her to be a leader back there directing.”

Be it Masters in the net, the cast of veteran defenders shaping the backline or the standout offensive firepower, North Marion heads into its 2019 season opener in 10 days with a squad aligned to ascend into a new grade of prominence.

Email Bradley Heltzel at bheltzel@timeswv.com or follow him on Twitter @bradheltzTWV.

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