ONEIDA | If there’s a high school soccer coach in East Tennessee who should be walking on air as the 2022 season opens this week, it’s Oneida’s Phil Newport.
Newport returns the nucleus of his district championship team — which achieved the program’s fourth consecutive substate appearance — from a year ago, including a talented group of five seniors that includes more than one of the most prolific players to pass through the program.
So what troubles Newport? Maybe it’s partly a never-satisfied approach to the game, one that will keep him hungry until his Lady Indians finally get to Murfreesboro — and not just get to Murfreesboro, but carry a trophy back to Oneida with them.
Or, maybe it’s his counterpart from over in the Powell Valley, Lorri Kimbrough.
Kimbrough’s Cumberland Gap team includes 14 seniors. And while Oneida got the Panthers in the district and region tournaments last season, Cumberland Gap took the regular season meeting. And Newport knows that Kimbrough would like nothing better than to steal the thunder of her old nemesis if folks start talking too heavily about this perhaps being Oneida’s best chance yet of getting to Murfreesboro.
“They beat us soundly (last year),” Newport said of Cumberland Gap’s win a year ago. “We’ve got that in our head, and we turn around in the district tournament, without my starting sweeper, and we beat them 3-2. So we got the head element out of it, and then turned right around and beat them in the region.
“Those two wins were exceptional in the fact that we … got over that hump and got going,” he added. “We’re going to have to do it again.”
Oneida’s chances of winning another district championship and perhaps finally getting beyond the substate round begin with Aliyah Douglas, a senior who is a fourth-year starter and will likely leave as the Lady Indians’ all-time leading scorer if she remains healthy. Helping her out on the front line will be another senior, Alexea Jones, who has emerged as a key offensive weapon over the past two seasons. And yet another senior, converted goalkeeper Claire Burress, will factor heavily into the offense, as well.
For all his senior leadership, though, Newport has a message for his veteran players.
“I’ve got a bunch of kids who have played for a while, so the experience factor is good,” Newport said. “But the youth on this team is kind of coming along. I’ve told them all along, there are a lot of the twos who want to play right away, and if they do surpass you, you might not get your job back. That’s a real threat.”
Oneida’s senior class is rounded out by Emma White, who will also see minutes this season.
As for the younger players who Newport is so high on, they include sophomores like Jillian Cross, Presley Queener and Lydia Kline. All three played key minutes as freshmen a year ago, though Kline missed part of the season with a knee injury.
But it’s not just about seniors and youngster. Newport has several juniors who will play as well. Some will start, and some have started multiple seasons. Among them are Ali Smith, Ayla Sims, Emilee Sexton, Emma Hamilton, Jailyn Anderson and Rory Blevins.
Sims is the team’s starting keeper, while Blevins is a converted forward who will be starting at sweeper for a second consecutive season.
Blevins is prototypical of Newport’s flexible roster. Up and down his lineup, he has players who can play multiple positions on the field.
“If you remember, Claire pretty much played as our most explosive center defender last year,” Newport said. “Then today (in a preseason game) we had her at forward.
“I like that dynamic,” he added. “I like kids who have enough of a skill set and understand the game well enough to play a number of different positions, and we’ve got probably nine or 10 girls that can do that. People will shoot me if I ever take Jones and take her out of the midfield and put her at sweeper. But that was our last look today. The idea is, don’t find comfort where you’re at. No how to play everywhere, so you know what everybody else is doing.”
With so many veteran players, and so many young players behind them who are chomping at the bit for their turn, Newport said it’s impossible to keep everyone happy with playing time. He knows that going in, and is prepared to deal with it.
“It’s hard to wait to make an impact,” Newport said. “My senior group, there are five girls that have played fairly regularly throughout their career, and so they’re not highly likely to lose their positions. They can, but they aren’t likely to. So we have those girls that are waiting on the wings to fill in those spots when those kids graduate. It’s a hard process.”
Going into the 2021 season, Newport made no bones about his discontent with his team’s work ethic and approach to the game. Yet, by the time the dust settled, the Lady Indians had made it to the substate yet again.
This year, he says, the approach has been somewhat better. But there’s room for improvement.
“I’m happier, but I’m never really too terribly happy,” Newport said. “One of the things that’s so difficult for us is that they try to draw too much energy from their coach. I implore them, push them. I want them to give effort that I can’t make them give. They’re ultimately responsible for their effort and a lot of times you’ll watch them play like they’re being lazy. I see those things, too, and that’s a sticking point for me as a coach because I can’t coach effort. That’s got to come from within.”
Newport said that while the work ethic is better this year, “I’m never going to be happy until I see a team that gives so much energy that they’re practically raising their hands so they can come off the field and take a rest. That would make me happy, if somebody wore themselves out with their effort so much that they asked to be removed. That never happened, so apparently they’ve got a little bit left.”
While it’s easy to say that this is Oneida’s year to finally bust through the door and get to the state tournament, Newport doesn’t feel that’s being fair to his team.
“I think in the future we will have chances to go to state again, after this group is past,” he said. “It is really quite literally the greatest compliment you can give our program, to acknowledge us in the preseason as a legitimate contender, considering all the aspects we encounter from year to year, such as graduation, injuries, the fact we play in a tough environment and how small enrollment at our school is.”
As far as potential, “We’ve got great potential again,” Newport said. “I’d love to get past that and see how we could do in the state tournament.”
So far, Alcoa has been Oneida’s stumbling block.
“They are good, but we just have to get that out of our head and try to go beyond them or whoever else we must,” Newport said.
Whatever the season holds in store, Newport said it’s not just a matter of getting to the state tournament and then celebrating.
“We could get to the state tournament and lose the first game, and I wouldn’t be happy,” he said. “There’s only one thing that’s going to ultimately end up making me happy, and that’s going to ultimately end up making my players happy, and that’s if we get to the state championship game and win the state championship game. Everybody else in the state is going home and they are going to have a problem with where they’ve finished. If you get to the championship game and lose, you go back and replay that game over and over and over.”
Ultimately, Newport said, “It’s going to be decided by the players on the field. So, you know, as long as I have my players ready to play and play hard, that’s all I ask.”