To head coach Willie Miles, a coach’s dream is to have a group of guys or girls giving their all from the start to the finish.
His first year at the helm of Powhatan High School’s varsity boys soccer team was far from the kind that any coach would hope to have. It was cut far too short – the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out all 2020 Virginia High School League spring sports before the regular seasons could even begin.
But his debut season, albeit severely limited, was made an enjoyable and memorable one with the help of this year’s senior class.
“They set the ways with the younger guys, especially how to play, how to have the right mindset and just knowing what to do. I complimented these guys a lot for helping to lead,” said Miles, who had assisted with the varsity team last year. “They’re good examples of teaching through practices and in the games, and just their commitment.”
“What a great group of seniors to inherit as a first-year coach, man! What more could you really ask for?” said assistant coach Zach York. “They just go out and play and they get the job done for you.
"It wasn’t a whole lot of work - just a great group of kids.”
Nate DeLong, Brandon Eacho, Harry Hayden, goalkeeper Dante Holder, Noah Kneessi and Aidan Willard all started playing soccer when they were around 8 years old or younger, with Hayden, Holder and Kneessi first stepping onto the field when they were 3.
Family influences played a role for some. Hayden’s brother played before he started. DeLong’s dad played at Virginia Tech as a goalkeeper and got him into the game when he was around 5 or 6. Kneessi’s dad was also really into soccer and still plays in adult leagues.
“Since then I have tried numerous other sports,” Kneessi said. “But soccer stuck with me.”
He was drawn in through the different skill it took “when compared to just about all other sports, being that it is played with your feet,” as well as through the passion his family has for it.
Holder played at the recreational level for most of his life, but he started taking soccer seriously around his sophomore year, when he started playing for the school.
“Whenever I would start a sport, I would start watching it, and soccer was always the sport that I liked watching the most,” Holder said. “There’s more of a tactical game and you have to use your mind.”
Along the way, several of the players competed for FC Richmond. Eacho played with the Kickers for a couple years and also competed for the Strikers, where Hayden was his teammate.
The one soccer memory that stands out the most in Hayden’s mind comes from a state cup game during his freshman year. The team he played with ran into Arlington, the reigning champions, on a hot day in a stadium up in Northern Virginia.
“First round of state cup, we knocked them out with a goal that I scored in the last 2 minutes of the game,” Hayden recalled. “That’s the one I come back to.”
For Hayden, there’s also that first time stepping onto the field for varsity, the pride you wear with that uniform and the captain’s band, and the first varsity goal you score.
DeLong fondly reflected on winning multiple club soccer tournaments.
“It’s nice to feel like a winner after a long, hard weekend with your team, and especially because we kept winning them back to back to back,” DeLong said. “It kind of cemented the idea that we actually played pretty good soccer.”
Eacho’s favorite memory came from a JV game when, almost right away, their keeper had gotten a red card in an away game at Charlottesville, but after that, he and his teammates went out there and “had more fun than we ever had playing.”
Willard and DeLong both cherish that game in which they and their Powhatan teammates tied Albemarle, who won the state title that year, and DeLong and Holder both loved the bus rides, on which they got to relax, eat, hang out, chat and joke around, especially on the way back from games during their time playing in the Charlottesville-centric Jefferson District.
“They never felt long,” Holder said, “even though they were really long rides.”
Miles thought back to last year’s regional playoffs. There was that 4-0 first-round win over Caroline – “guys came out, took care of business, it was awesome to see,” Miles said – but there was also the narrow 1-0 defeat to Midlothian in the quarterfinals.
“Last year after we lost our last game will forever be stuck with me. I had never felt as connected to the team as I had then,” Kneessi said. “We all felt a significant loss because that was our last time playing with that team.”
‘One big family’
For Kneessi, Powhatan boys soccer has been one of the best teams he’s played for because of the family-like connection he said they shared.
“We were a very close-knit group,” he said. “That alone made all of the difference.”
“Last year when I started playing goalie, I didn’t really know what I was doing, and so I really appreciate everybody helping me out, trying to help me be the best goalie I could be for the last two years,” Holder said. “I really appreciate that about them. It’s just one big family.”
“It’s more enjoyable, honestly,” Willard said. “When me and Nate play FC, it’s just a ton of travelling and hard work, practice. … In Powhatan, it’s hard work, but it’s also fun and enjoyable with guys you’ve known for four years or longer.”
With Powhatan, DeLong knew he “was coming back to the same group of dudes each year” he was there. Eacho described how playing with the same group of players over the years helps a lot when it comes to getting everyone to play as a team, since you’ll know what everyone is going to do.
“Off the field, we know each other’s families. We see people’s parents after the game,” DeLong said. “It’s like one big family with everybody in it, just building friendships and forging bonds with the people, and you can’t really break those.”
Sharing the field with his Powhatan teammates was a gift for Hayden. It’s helped him grow as a player.
“Having quality good players around you makes you want to push yourself," Hayden said, "and stand out more and play harder and contribute the most that you can to the team.”
A coachable unit
When Miles first came into the program, the players, including last year’s seniors, welcomed him in with open arms. This year’s seniors also embraced him as their new head coach.
“You can get a super knowledgeable coach, but it doesn’t mean anything if he has no passion for the game or for these players, and I’d say we got a coach that’s pretty passionate and he really cares about everybody, which makes a huge difference in how people want to play for him, how hard people are willing to go for him, and for the whole program itself,” DeLong said of Miles.
“You want the best people on it for the job, and I think that’s exactly who we got,” Hayden said. “Especially following after Tim [Cristian], Miles learned a lot from him and wanted to continue building upon…the foundation that he had started, and that’s exactly what happened.”
From his coaches, Kneessi learned that “even if you are not the best team on the field, you better play like you are and always go into a game with the mindset that you can win.”
Powhatan assistant soccer coach Paul Smartschan strongly appreciated the dedication and passion that this year’s seniors played with each year.
“It is going to be tough to replace them as a group,” Smartschan said. “But it was great to see them inspire the next group of Powhatan boys soccer players!”
A hopeful season ends too soon
Powhatan notched several goals in its second preseason action when it beat Atlee this spring.
“Pretty much everything was spectacular within that scrimmage,” Miles said. “Everything was just clicking for the three quarters that these guys were on the field.”
The win gave physical form to the players’ high hopes. Hayden said they were looking to have one of the best seasons that he thinks they would’ve ever had. Powhatan would’ve entered 2020 as a member of the talented, Midlothian-heavy Dominion District after playing in the Jefferson District for years.
“But we were playing some great soccer and I was looking forward to coming out and showing out and beating these teams that are supposedly the big dogs,” Hayden said.
But Powhatan’s matchup with Atlee was its last.
After that, the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the rest of the spring sports season.
“It was a hard pill to swallow. But that’s kind of what life is sometimes,” Hayden said. “You work really hard for something and you might not get what you want or what you worked for, but that opens the door for something else – that opens three more doors, and the next thing you know, you’re at a level where you’re so much better off than you would’ve been had you have gotten what you wanted.”
“No matter how hard you work, it may not work out, but you put in the work, it will translate to something. It’s not a waste. It’s never a waste. You just have to learn to bounce back and move on and do something now that’s productive or good with what you did,” DeLong said. “Also it’s kind of hard [not having] a proper goodbye or like a senior night or anything, so it also kind of taught me to value the moments that you do have with people, and the relationships that you made, because you don’t know what’s going to happen or when you’ll see that person again.”
From their time on the field, Eacho and Holder learned that if you have something you enjoy, you should enjoy it while you have it, while Willard’s takeaway was to not doubt yourself. For Kneessi, it was to “always go into an event with a mindset that you will do good,” because “going into an event with a negative mindset will most likely lead to a negative outcome.”
Once a part, always a part
To both DeLong and Eacho, once you’re part of Powhatan soccer, you’ll always be a part of it.
“You’re never going to leave, whether you come back and just watch the games, help at practices,” DeLong said. “You don’t lose the feeling of being a part of the program and the passion for it.”
“Everything about it – the guys, the culture, it just makes it so enjoyable,” Willard said. “I look forward to high school season most of the year.”
Holder is thankful for being on the team for as long as he was, for getting to play soccer with the teammates he had and for all the friendships he made along the way.
“As soon as one season ends . . . within three days, you’re missing the next one,” Hayden added. “You can’t wait until December, January starts rolling around so you hop back into conditioning, get to meet all your buds."
For Kneessi, losing his last year with the team was very disappointing.
“But hopefully,” he said, “this will push the future Powhatan soccer teams to live up to our undefeated season.”