ALCOA — In the end, too many Alcoa playmakers, too much Alcoa depth and too many Oneida injuries led to the demise of the Indians in the Class A state sectionals here Saturday evening, as the Tornadoes stormed to a 7-0 victory over the visiting Tribe to advance to the state tournament in Murfreesboro.
A banged-up Oneida team fell behind 3-0 in the first half, and it was all downhill after that, head coach Derek Keeton explained afterward.
“We finally ran out of gas,” Keeton said. “Having to play three overtime games in one week finally took its toll on us, along with the injuries. It was just too much to overcome against a high-quality Alcoa soccer team.”
While Oneida’s season came to an end with Saturday’s loss, it was an historic season for the Indians, who made the program’s first substate appearance. And that run came on the heels of the Lady Indians’ run to the substate last fall.
“I’m very proud of our boys,” Keeton said. “They played with tremendous heart this year and their will to win has been remarkable.”
The three overtime games Keeton referred to came against Cumberland Gap — twice, once in the District 3-A championship game and once in the Region 2-A championship game — and in the regional semifinals at Sweetwater.
With depth increasingly becoming an issue, Oneida saw the overtime games perhaps dictate how its postseason finished. First, the Indians battled No. 3 Cumberland Gap to a 6-5 finish in a game that ended on sudden death penalty kicks in the district title game, a marathon affair that went two overtime periods and two sudden death overtime periods before moving on to two rounds of penalty kicks. That loss meant the Indians had to travel to Cumberland Gap again for the regional title game seven days later, rather than facing the Panthers in Oneida. That game, which Cumberland Gap won 2-1 in overtime, dictated a trip to Alcoa for the substate game, rather than a game in Oneida against a lesser Gatlinburg-Pittman team.
The losses also took a toll in other ways. Talented senior forward Dante West was lost to a knee injury in the first game at Cumberland Gap on May 10, and Drew DeWitt — another key contributor — suffered a concussion in the second game at Cumberland Gap on May 16, which forced him to miss Saturday’s game at Alcoa.
The injuries to West and DeWitt represented the loss of Oneida’s two fastest players, and allowed both the Panthers and the Tornadoes to hone in defensively on the Indians’ explosive newcomer at forward, freshman Danner Keeton.
By the start of Saturday’s game, Oneida was down five starters. And it showed up in the final score, as the Indians were shut out for the first time all season and gave up the most goals they had given up in a single game all season.
Still, Keeton was upbeat afterward, applauding his team’s effort and desire.
“I am very thankful for Coach Phil Newport,” Keeton said of his assistant coach, who handled the team’s defensive strategy. “He has been everything this team needed this year and then some, especially on defense. Our defense has been really good, and the boys absolutely love him.”
Keeton also credited Oneida football coach Tony Lambert and basketball coach Jacob King.
“I refer to Coach Lambert as the OHS soccer strength and conditioning coach,” Keeton said. “He’s provided ongoing workouts for some of our players this semester and it has contributed significantly to the success we’ve had this year. Coach King’s boys came in in phenomenal shape and literally anchored our back line of our defense because of our conditioning and mental toughness.”
With a first-year head coach in Keeton, who coached the middle school Indians last year before transitioning to the high school role this year, Oneida went through some transitional pains early, starting the season 2-4 as they searched for an identity.
By the end of spring break, however, the Indians were poised to make a run deep. With Keeton predicting in advance that his team was beginning to gel, Oneida reeled off four consecutive wins in April, out-scoring their opponents 23-4 despite playing three of the four games on the road.
Overall, Oneida finished the regular season by going 5-1-1 in its final seven games.
That run, and the two close losses to undefeated and third-ranked Cumberland Gap in the postseason, left the Indians wondering what might have been.
“With the injuries, we seldom fielded the same lineup,” Newport said. “I think we said throughout the year that it would be interesting to see this team at full strength. That never happened.
“I think we were determined to withstand anything Alcoa threw at us, but the reality is we are just a worn-out soccer team,” Newport added. “You have to commend the kids; the score won’t reflect it, but we deserved our place at the table.”
Newport said that Keeton did a “fantastic job” with the team, as they shuffled players around to place them in spots in which they would be most effective. Ultimately, though, the injuries caught up.
“All injuries hurt, but losing Drew and Dante when we did really crippled our team,” Newport said. “By that, I mean the timing and athletic ability you are losing in their positions. We simply could not replace their speed and experience in critical positions.”