For head coach Jared Rottmund, the 2020 preseason marked a couple of firsts.
It was his first time coaching seniors who were playing in Powhatan High School’s girls soccer program as eighth graders during the same year he first started coaching the varsity unit.
This year was also the first in which he had six freshmen on the team.
But with his six seniors – Emma Barnett, Emily Matthews, Camden McCullough, Violet Parks, Reese Vandell and Savannah Wood – leading the way, Rottmund wasn’t too nervous about bringing on the younger competitors.
“I feel like I had the right group of seniors to lead a young team and just to be that mentor, because we had a lot of ninth graders,” Rottmund said. “These girls were hyped up, and they were ready to step into that leadership role, without a doubt.”
Family was a major motivator in bringing what Rottmund described as a “first-class” group of seniors into the sport. Wood, who started when she was 5 years old, played with her older brother growing up.
“I always looked up to my brother,” Wood said. “I loved watching him play.”
Parks’ dad, who used to live in Europe, also played soccer.
“It’s always been a big part of our life,” Parks said. She’s been playing for a little over 10 years now.
Both of McCullough’s parents are coaches – there are baby pictures of McCullough in a soccer jersey with a soccer ball – and she’s been playing for as long as she can remember.
It’s the same for Matthews. Her parents registered her for Powhatan recreational soccer when she was four. Her mom played soccer all throughout her own high school years.
“It was only fitting for her to want my siblings and me to play soccer,” Matthews said.
Vandell’s parents wanted her to get involved with a sport and stay active when she was a kid, so they signed her up for soccer at the YMCA around three or four years old.
Barnett has also been a lifetime player, starting when she was three. She hasn’t stopped since.
The people she’s gotten to know are among the reasons why.
Barnett has played with the same teammates in Powhatan for 10 years, and she’s also gotten to meet a lot of new people through the game.
Vandell started to fall in love with the sport when she was given the position of keeper around the age of eight.
“I was good at it,” she said, “and people always cheered me on.”
Parks likes the pace of the game of soccer.
“It’s just a very quick pace. It’s very competitive,” Parks said. “There are a lot of patterns, too, that you have to think about.”
Matthews fell in love with soccer because of both the competition and the team element that it provides.
“I love being around my teammates,” Matthews said. “They have truly become some of my lifelong friends.”
Wood loves “the rush you get when you’re on the field” as well as the connection she has both on and off the field with her teammates and coaches.
“They continue to support me,” she said.
McCullough loves the creativity of the game.
“The opponent can use a creative move or a good move on you and I can still appreciate the level of skill they have, even though I’m playing against them,” McCullough said. “It’s just that concept of the creativity of the game and the different styles of all players, because nobody plays the game the exact same way.”
Bringing their talents to Powhatan soccer
Barnett, Matthews and Parks played for Powhatan’s varsity unit since their sophomore seasons and Wood has been with the team since her junior year. Vandell played varsity as a freshman and senior, but in her sophomore year, she had to move down and play for JV because there were no other lower classmen goalies.
“It was really fun though,” Vandell said. “We had a really good season and we all got along pretty well and had good chemistry.”
This would’ve been McCullough’s first season playing for the high school team. She and Vandell entered the 2020 season as the varsity team’s goalies, Matthews as center defender and Barnett, Parks and Wood as forward strikers.
Parks inspired her younger teammates with her nonstop intensity and her focus on never giving up.
“I remember telling Jared when we were talking to the younger girls, that my big thing – I guess one of the big things is – just don’t stop,” Parks said. “Just keep going.”
Wood brought positivity and was one of Powhatan’s best distributors, being able to both pass and control the ball under pressure. McCullough brought the willingness to step up into the tough position of defending the goal. Vandell brought another voice and a sense of communication to the field that helped bring the players together, and she was able to help her teammates with her ability to see the entire field in the keeper position.
Barnett also attested to being able to see the field very well when she played center-midfield, and she also brought work ethic and leadership.
Matthews brought encouragement, and she led by example.
“I pushed hard in practice with my teammates,” Matthews said, “which translated to the field when we played together.”
Matthews, Barnett, Wood and Parks were all part of a 2019 team that made improvements and enjoyed shining moments in spite of dealing with several injuries.
Highlights from last season included the Indians besting Midlothian 1-0 and fighting hard in a narrow loss to Western Albemarle.
So, going into this year, Rottmund was expecting a great season.
“I told a couple of them, trying to get them motivated – and I think we would’ve had our picture on the wall – I said, ‘I’m going to have a state champion team; it’s whether or not you’re in the picture with me,’” Rottmund said. “And I really felt that these girls could’ve been – we would’ve gone far this season, no doubt.”
McCullough was really excited about getting to play with Powhatan’s varsity team for the first time this spring.
“I was really looking forward to it,” she said, “and I was really looking forward to working hard and challenging myself.”
Powhatan was switching to a new district, which, to Parks, was something to look forward to. After taking on a grind in the Charlottesville-heavy Jefferson District for years, the Indians’ new Dominion District opponents would have included their Chesterfield County neighbors, as well as Richmond’s Huguenot High School.
“Also, we had a really young team this year, so it was kind of interesting to see how it was all going to play out, but I think I was actually surprised in the first two games how well we did,” Parks said. “I feel like this season would’ve been: we would’ve picked it up and we could’ve been a really good team.”
“Some seasons you would go into the season thinking we can only get better, and some seasons we went into it only thinking about how much we would dominate on the pitch,” Vandell said. “But every season, you expected to have fun.”
The expectation set, Matthews said, was that each player would try their hardest, do their best and always be ready for practices and games. Wood was ready to give it her all, all the time.
Barnett was looking forward to playing with her new teammates – and with her little sister, Sarah, for the first time on varsity.
But the regular season would never come.
The pandemic strikes
The Opening Day for Virginia High School League’s spring sports was three days away when the COVID-19 pandemic began to grip the nation, leading to the NCAA shuttering their winter and spring sports championships, and to professional sports leagues putting their seasons on hold.
First, the VHSL spring seasons were delayed. But when schools across the state were ordered by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to close for the rest of the school year, they were cancelled altogether.
“I was kind of shocked at first. It didn’t really hit me, and then I kind of thought about it – and I’m not playing in college. . . . It’s pretty much the majority of my lifetime, too, that I’ve spent on a field,” Parks said. “It was hard. It was upsetting, because, when something’s a big part of your life, it’s like: you want it to stay that way, but it can’t always last.”
“I was really upset too,” Barnett said. “I’m playing college soccer, which is – I’m really lucky, because this is not the end of my soccer career – but it’s still really hard to finish high school like this.”
“I really didn’t process it at first that we weren’t going to get to finish it out,” McCullough said. “I was really looking forward to playing with this group of girls, the challenge of the new district.”
“I didn’t process it either. It was just overwhelming,” Wood said. “I thought we were going to be out for two weeks. I didn’t really expect to be out for the rest of the year. I thought we were going to come back…and then it just took a turn.”
“It really sucked hearing that there was going to be no season this year,” Vandell said. “I cried when I found out there was no more – no senior night, no parents walking me onto the field – it was my senior year and it was cancelled.”
“It was heartbreaking,” Matthews said. “I was ready to have a great senior season. I was excited for senior night and all the senior activities that go along with it. Planning senior night last year made me excited for my own senior night, which made it really hard this year to not have one more season.”
But the pandemic has helped Matthews to become more independent, which she believes will help her tremendously in college.
“It has motivated me towards my future goals by teaching me to do everything to my best ability,” she said, “because you’ll never know if it’s your last time.”
The pandemic has also definitely affected Vandell’s goals for the future. Since she never really got her last year of soccer, she’s been craving more.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to play club soccer in college,” Vandell said. “But now I feel like I have to. I feel like I’m not finished with the sport.”
Motivation has been hard to find during this time, Parks said, but she’s definitely going to be playing intramural sports at college – and find a group she clicks with – when she arrives.
McCullough has been stepping up her workout routine and focusing on continuing to work hard throughout this time. Wood decided that she would probably play club soccer in college.
The pandemic has further motivated Barnett for college. She will be attending and playing soccer for Roanoke College, where she plans to major in pre-health sciences. Her career goal is to become a nurse.
Wood will be going to William and Mary, where she plans to major in chemistry and minor in marine sciences.
McCullough will be attending Virginia Tech on an Air Force scholarship.
Parks will also be going to Virginia Tech in the fall and majoring in biology. She’s planning to follow the pre-veterinarian track and then attend vet school.
Matthews will attend Liberty University to major in business administration: finance and minor in mathematics. She would also like to play club or intramural soccer in college.
Vandell will attend Longwood University, where she plans on playing club soccer.
When it comes to staying in shape and staying conditioned, Vandell has been able to work out at home and go for long walks and runs.
Matthews runs every morning and does at least another hour of some kind of physical activity, whether it be following along with an exercise/workout class on YouTube or going to play outside with her younger siblings.
Wood has been following online workouts from Chloe Ting, and she’s also been running every once in a while in her neighborhood, as well as taking her dogs for walks.
McCullough has also been running a lot, and she’s been utilizing her home’s workout area, which includes a treadmill, exercise bike and full-body workout machine.
Barnett has been running, too, and sometimes she’ll go to the high school with her sister to play soccer. In addition to runs around her neighborhood, Parks, like Wood and Matthews, has also been following online workouts.
From the pandemic, the seniors have seen how important it is to stay connected with your friends and family, and to not take time for granted.
They’ve also seen how people around them have stepped up and helped one another throughout this time.
From soccer itself, Parks has learned there’s a lot of ways through which you can overcome a problem.
“If there’s something in your way, there are still so many ways you can go around it,” Parks said, “and even if times do get hard, don’t take it personally, because there are a lot of people around you to help you out.”
Dealing with different personalities on and off the soccer field has taught Barnett how to talk to different people and handle problems, and McCullough has seen that, if you face a team in any given game, you can still win, so keep trying, keep pushing and keep playing.
“This game helped me to see deeper into my teammates,” Vandell said, “and that what you say and how you say it can really affect someone, and you never know what someone is going through.”
Wood learned the ability to work as a team and have each others’ backs – something she can use later in life – and Matthews, through soccer, realized how important perseverance, especially through hard times, and teamwork both are.
“Soccer has also helped me realize how important it is to work hard,” Matthews said, “and have discipline.”
A supportive unit
Powhatan is a close community, Matthews said, and for the seniors, that sense of community reverberates throughout the team.
“Most of my teammates now, I played rec with them when I was little,” Matthews said. “Although as we got older [and] we drifted to other travel teams, we still remained friends throughout school, which makes Powhatan soccer unique.”
“Everybody was really together on everything, working together . . . helping each other with homework if we needed it,” McCullough said.
Parks noted that “there’s not really a lot of beef on the field,” with which Wood agreed.
“If anyone gets upset, it’s usually resolved I feel like on the field at least,” Parks said. “After the game, even if we lose, even if we’re all kind of upset, we go and we’ll get ice cream after or something and we’ll just have fun with it either way.”
To Barnett, Powhatan soccer has given her the best soccer experience she’s had.
“I think that we’re all really close. We went to dinner together before every game,” Barnett said. “It was just really fun and it was cool playing for your school, too.”
Vandell said her teammates and coaches were amazing.
They were fun, very skilled,” she said, “and just all-around really good people.”
The teammates were all really supportive of each other, Wood said.
“If you ever had a skill that you didn’t know, you could always ask them,” she said. “They would always help you.”
“They were always willing to work on you. If you needed something that you thought you needed extra help with or wanted to work on – certain techniques – you could always talk to them and they would help you,” McCullough said. “If you had something like a passing skill you needed to work on, they would tell you the drill that you could do on your own at home or with a friend.”
McCullough also recalled how, in one of their scrimmages, she got taken down while defending the goal, and everyone checked on her to make sure she was all right.
In tryouts and conditioning, when there were still teammates finishing up their runs, the team was there waiting at the end, clapping for the last person, saying, “Come on, you can do this!” and making sure that no one slowed down and everyone finished, Parks said.
She also reflected fondly on the times she and her teammates shared together after games.
“Everyone’s all hyped up, and then we either hit up a McDonalds or a Chick-fil-A, and everyone’s inside, we’re all packed together, excited,” Parks said. “Then we just kind of hang out after the game, just like a family.”
Barnett’s favorite memories were beating Midlothian and going to the pre-game dinners. Wood loved the times they went to Chick-fil-A before games, and Matthews loved scrimmaging at practice and just being around her teammates.
“I looked forward to going to soccer practice and games after school every day,” Matthews said. “It was always my favorite part of the day.”
Coach Rottmund always enjoyed the team camaraderie after games – the bus rides home, the team dinners and just chatting with the players. And these girls, he said, are the ones you want to coach.
“I guess the best word for them was first-class,” Rottmund said. “To me, it was just awesome, because they always wanted to learn – very supportive of each other – and they just knew how to bring out the best in each other, in each other as seniors and each of their teammates.
“I always say you need to learn what your teammates’ weakness is and you need to build off of that, you need to help them with that, and you need to find their strength, and you need to build off of that.”
To Rottmund, that’s what these seniors did.
“I really appreciate them showing up every day and leading the team, without a doubt.”
He had several parents tell him that this class of seniors was “tenacious.”
“And they are,” Rottmund said. “I was really looking forward to the season, truly I was.”
But he looks forward to staying in contact with his players, and he hopes that they’ll be able to come to some of Powhatan’s games in the future.
All of her coaches, Matthews said, have been “super supportive” and pushed her to do her best.
“I truly enjoyed every moment I had as a player for the coaches.”