By Tyler Thompson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The Fair Grove Eagles boys soccer team (21-6-1) advanced all the way to the state Final Four last season under then-head coach Joseph Florez.
Florez stepped away after serving as the Eagles head coach for nine years but remains in a teaching role within the district.
However, Florez isn’t the only one gone from last year’s team, as eighty percent of the scoring offense graduated — opening the door for others this season.
Last year, the Eagles averaged 4.14 goals per game, while containing the opposition to a mere 1.82 goals per game.
Gone are Maicol Newkirk, Kyle Stacey, Kamron Stacey, Shain Lahey, and Michael Steineke.
But for a team with experience and depth, new head coach Matt Novak has a nice balance of returning starters and up-and-comers who have yet to truly leave their mark in the purple and white.
Starters returning include Jack Mcatee (senior), Jacob Morelan (senior), Grant Squires (senior), Ben Hamilton (senior), Griffin Merillat (senior), Josh Orr (sophomore), and Andrew Shurtz (sophomore).
Other returning varsity players include Mitch Van Cleave (junior), Steven Dunham (junior), Eli Edwards (junior), and Ty Padgett (sophomore).
Novak — who played collegiately at Evangel and officially accepted the position June 28 — didn’t get onto the pitch with the team until Tuesday, Aug. 2 — for their first open field practice.
“I haven’t been able to [meet the players], which is rough. I had to get paperwork finalized and stuff like that. This is my first real [varsity] coaching job,” Novak said.
Many first-time coaches don’t have the luxury of taking over a team that advanced to the Final Four just one year previous.
While losing veteran players such as Newkirk and Kyle Stacey (94 goals combined in ’18), Novak knows what he has in the returning roster, and he said with such an abbreviated offseason, it may take a bit to find their niche.
“The expectations are going to be high, really high,” Novak said. “Losing three key players: Maicol [Newkirk], Kyle [Stacey], and Kamron [Stacey], there are going to be some shoes to fill. Somebody is going to have to step up and fill those shoes. It is going to be a little bit of a different year, but I believe in these guys, in the returners I have.”
While Newkirk and the Stacey brothers are no longer roaming the pitch, Novak is excited to get his hands on the other contributors: Senior Dylan Mooneyham (five goals and seven assists); Lahey (four goals and six assists); Orr (six goals and five assists); Shurtz (one goal and five assists); Padgett (two goals); and Griffin Merillat (one goal).
With the returning depth, Novak said things could be worse, as there are plenty of field generals in whom he can rely upon this season.
Five of the eight returning starters are seniors — a nice problem to have for a first-time head coach.
“That is experience in itself,” Novak said. “I think we will get it figured out pretty quickly.”
With the success achieved last season, Novak said the underclassmen will benefit by watching the elder statesmen go to work each and every day: giving a leg up to the season.
But it begins with playing off emotions.
“It is really going to be the attitude I come in with as a coach,” Novak said. “It starts with my attitude, and then if they can feed off of that — get the ball rolling, come in and have a solid preseason and get stuff done.”
The preseason jamboree is tabbed for 4 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23, at Hillcrest.