PILOT MOUNTAIN — Most first-year coaches need an adjustment period with their new team, but Neal Oliver has a slight head start in this department with the East Surry soccer team.
The Cardinals named Oliver the head coach on July 6, but the new leader of East Surry soccer already possesses a relationship with many of his new players. Oliver has coached numerous travel soccer teams and served as a coach at Pilot Mountain Middle School off-and-on over the past decade.
“I know these kids and I think it helps a whole lot,” Oliver said. “Knowing the kids as individuals rather than just as players helps with my coaching and my leadership.”
After East Surry experienced a difficult 5-17 season in 2016, Oliver is now tasked with the responsibility of leading the Cardinals back to their winning ways. Just two years ago, East Surry played for the NCHSAA 1A state championship, and although Oliver admits his Cardinals have a long way to go before they start fighting for championships, he believes they are more than capable of righting the ship.
“I think we’ll be competitive in every match we play,” he said. “We have to step up and get the winning concept back in their heads. It’s a new team and a new season, so we are starting from scratch.”
If the Cardinals are going to bounce back in 2016, a pair of junior forwards are going to have to play a big role.
Diego Rebollar and Javier Ruiz both return to East Surry this season after gaining their first varsity experience last year. The two have different styles of play, but Oliver thinks they could make a nice scoring combination at the front of his preferred 4-4-2 formation.
“They’re learning to trust each other right now and that’s a big step,” Oliver said. “I’m looking for good things out of them if they can give the ball back-and-forth to each other and start developing a better connection.”
Behind those two forwards will be four midfielders, and Oliver believes he has six different players fighting for the starting positions. Regardless of who starts, all six will earn substantial playing time. Ryan Wagoner, Gonzalo Chavez and Eduardo Medina all return this season, with the likes of Oscar Duran and Chris Orozco providing competition as a pair of fresh faces.
“All six players can interchange in the midfield. The guys all understand their roles,” Oliver said. “For example if you’re on the outside, you’ve got to go hard on offense and defense until you’re tired, then get a rest before going hard again.”
Defense might be the Cardinals’ biggest challenge this season, as all four starters on the back line and the goalie from 2015 are no longer on the team. Ryan Sutterby, last year’s starter, decided to focus exclusively on his kicking duties for the Cardinal football team in 2016.
The battle for Sutterby’s replacement comes down to seniors Garrett Atkins and Kendall Williams. If Williams earns the starting position, Oliver plans to use Atkins in a defensive position on the field.
Seth Lowe and Brady Jessup are likely starters in the East Surry defense, and Oliver is still searching for some other reliable defenders. Lowe will be the central anchor while Jessup can play both in the middle or on the left.
“I think our defense is making good progress. We’re going to try a bunch of different combinations in the beginning to hopefully find the right fit by conference season,” Oliver said.
East Surry’s first three matches of the season are all at home, but the Cardinals also face three very difficult opponents to start the season in Starmount, West Stokes and Forbush.
Reach Jackson at 415-4702 and on twitter @jacksonfuller16