The loss of several quality, experienced players from a soccer program which has enjoyed a great deal of success in recent years hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm first-year head coach Gerald Wilburn has as he assumes the reins of the Oak Hill High girls squad.
“I look forward to every bit of it,” said Wilburn, who was head coach of the Oak Hill Middle program the past three seasons, as well as having years of recreational league coaching experience. “We’ve had a good group of kids so far.
“They all came out for three-week training; that training helped out (to) get them in a little bit better shape before we started learning positions. We have some talent, we just have to get it all together.
“Yeah, I’m excited about it.”
He replaces Savanna Babcock.
For 2020, the Red Devils moved up in the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission’s classification ranks from Class AA to Class AAA, but they continued to put a solid program out on the pitch. The 2020 season once again ended with a section championship and a berth in the region championship game. The top-seeded Red Devils beat Princeton 2-0 in the Class AAA Region 3, Section 2 championship, then they fell by an 8-0 count to George Washington in the Region 3 title contest.
Oak Hill then-junior Samiah Lynch scored the game-winning goal in the 14th minute against Princeton, and forward Kiya Babkirk provided the other score.
“Morgan Wills in the back, she was a big part of their defense,” Wilburn said while discussing some of the departures from that unit. “And Kiya Babkirk was the goal scorer.
“You’re missing two of the key people.”
Returning player Kadence Lucas, a junior, has suffered a torn ACL and will be unavailable. “We’re really gonna miss her; she’s all around one of the best players,” said Wilburn. “We’re going to be young, a lot of new faces, but we’re going to get after it.”
Lynch, now a senior who is expected to help guide the team this fall, “returns in the middle, so she’ll be the staple of the team this year,” said Wilburn. “Hopefully we can get some goals out of her.” She was one of the team’s top goal-scorers last season.
Sophomore Jade Babkirk, Kiya Babkirk’s sister, will be looked to for contributions, said Wilburn. “We’ve got to get some production out of her.”
Among others being asked to provide quality minutes will include senior Shyanne Friebel, and juniors Bethany Rosiek and Hannah White. Senior goalkeeper Eden Gilkey also returns to help anchor the prevent unit.
Lynch and Gilkey were honorable mention all-state players a year ago, along with the departed Babkirk.
Sophomore Samantha Dean was hurt last year but is back in the mix this fall. “We look for her to be a big part,” Wilburn said.
“And there are a lot of young ones that haven’t seen a lot of action,” Wilburn said. “We’re not very deep (18-20 players).”
Overall, four players with starting experience return. “It’s a challenge.”
“Chemistry is a big thing,” Wilburn continued. “Some of them have (played together) and some of them haven’t.” The early season still involves moving players into the best slot for them, he stressed, and allowing more familiarity with teammates to occur.
The smallish roster might prevent many junior varsity games from being played, and one of the team’s main weaknesses will be its roster size. “Depth will be a weakness, inexperience. We could possibly start two to three freshmen.”
Oak Hill was slated to compete in the Princeton Kick-O-Rama on Saturday with Princeton, Shady Spring and Midland Trail.
The Red Devils open their regular season on Aug. 21 with a 1 p.m. game at Ripley. The first home contest is set for 6 p.m. on Aug. 24 against Robert C. Byrd.
Wilburn, who is assisted by Kent Light, says the slate is chock full of difficult foes. “We aren’t ducking nobody,” he said. “We’re playing George Washington and Charleston Catholic, South Charleston, Capital, Greenbrier East, Woodrow Wilson …
“We’re not looking for easy games. I think we’re only as good as who we play against. We’re looking to compete. I think we’ll be all right.”
“We’re going to get after it and be aggressive and play hard,” he added. “Leave it all on the field. We’re going to try to be as physical as we can.”
While Oak Hill has been in the section driver’s seat in recent years, Wilburn expects a spirited postseason with Princeton, Greenbrier East and Woodrow Wilson when the time arrives. “I think it will be pretty even.”