For a second consecutive season, Oneida will make an appearance in the Class A substate.
The Indians will take the field Saturday — at a place and against an opponent that were not determined as of Tuesday — as one of the final 16 teams standing in Tennessee Class A soccer. First, though, Oneida was to have hosted Sweetwater in the Region 2-A championship game on Wednesday, with a 5 p.m. start slated for Jane Terry Hoffman Field on the campus of Oneida Elementary School.
While Wednesday’s game is not an elimination game, it does determine where and who the Indians play on Saturday. With a win, they’ll host the Region 1-A runner-up. A loss to Sweetwater will send them to the Region 1 champion’s home turf.
The end-of-season dramatics began with a district championship for the Indians, something that eluded them last year. Derek Keeton’s squad defeated Cumberland Gap on Thursday, 2-1, to claim the district title. They followed that up with a 2-1 win over Sale Creek in the region semifinals on Monday.
Once the dust settles, regardless of how it ends, if there’s one word that Keeton, his assistant coach, Phil Newport, and the Indians would use to describe this season, it might be just this: perseverance.
Oneida suffered a seismic blow early, when Danner Keeton — last year’s leading scorer — was lost to a knee injury before the first game had ever been played. Other injuries followed for a team that was already tasked with replacing a large group of seniors that graduated in 2018. It was the second consecutive season that injuries hampered the Indians.
“I am so proud of these young men,” Keeton said after Monday’s game. “We talk all the time about remaining calm under pressure and allowing your character on the field to honor our Lord Jesus Christ. I can honestly say they have done that this year and especially the last three games.”
The Indians began to settle into a groove at the end of the regular season, with a shutout win over Clinton. Entering the District 3-A tournament as a three-seed, Oneida first avenged a regular season loss to Rockwood with another shutout, defeating the Tigers 2-0.
“It was a consummate team win,” Keeton said after that May 7 victory. “Every single kid sold out this week to their role on this team to win this game and ultimately a championship. I absolutely love the heart of this team.”
Later, Keeton said of Thursday’s game at Cumberland Gap: “We want this one bad!”
And then his Indians went and took it. The Panthers scored in the opening stages of Thursday’s championship game, but after that, Newport’s defense clamped down as it has done so many times this season. Joshua Alcorn scored on an assist from Zac Hacker with 15 minutes remaining in the first half, then Drew Dewitt scored off an assist from Joel Couch with 26 minutes to play in the second half. That turned out to be the game-winner.
“After the first score, Coach Newport made a good adjustment and settled everything down and we really played well,” Keeton said. “Our keeper, junior Jacob Manis, has been our leader all year on defense and I’m just so proud of him. We are blessed to have him. He’s special. Joshua Alcorn has come on the last two games along with much improved play from Rhemci Chitwood and Drew Dewitt to provide more offensive power.”
Again applauding the heart of his team, Keeton added: “I kept telling our team that we can steal a championship this year due to low expectations. And they did more than that. They went and earned one as a three-seed by winning two games on the road.”
In Monday’s game against Sale Creek, the Indians again fell behind 1-0 but battled back. Chitwood scored an unassisted goal to tie the game in the second half, then Hacker scored on a shot from 20 yards out with six minutes remaining to win it.
“After that, we went defensive and held on for the victory,” Keeton said. “This team may get down, but they do not quit. They were down 1-0 to Gap and found a way to win. Tonight, we again were down 1-0 and found a way to win.”
Sweetwater reached the region title game with an 8-1 win over Cumberland Gap on Monday. Earlier, they defeated Sale Creek, 4-0, in the District 4-A championship game.