New-look Oak Mountain squad hopes to win state championship

Published 11:13 am Thursday, February 1, 2024

By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

The Oak Mountain Eagles may look different on the field in 2024, but the goal is still the same: win another state championship.

The Eagles fell short of that goal last year in the Final 4, and in order to return to Huntsville as they have so many times in their storied history, coach Chris Blight knows that they must be motivated to reach their small goals on the road to their biggest goal.

“For me, it’s always a process,” Blight said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. Obviously, that’s a big goal, but we have a lot of small goals that we want to reach before then.”

For many of Oak Mountain’s players, they are already motivated enough from last year’s heartbreak in Huntsville.

“I think definitely last year it was discouraging to end off how it did,” senior Avery Smith said. “But I think that makes us just as like more motivated than ever to really accomplish that state title this year.”

Like Smith, the players have turned to the program’s lofty standard to fuel that desire to prove themselves and finish the job in 2024.

“There’s a lot expected of you when you play at Oak Mountain,” senior Aaron Pretner said. “I think that using that as motivation will get you where you want to be.”

With nine players gone from last season’s squad, including Alabama’s Gatorade Player of the Year Kierson McDonald in the midfield, Blight admits that this team has a very different dynamic than last year, but players like Smith are excited for the new-look squad.

“I think it’s definitely an adjustment, but I’m excited with what I’m seeing so far and I’m excited to play with some new people and continue improving,” Smith said.

They are working to build around their new skillset and according to Blight, the pieces are starting to come together.

“The intensity and work rate in practice has been excellent and I think that when we start to get into games and see where the different areas that we’re successful in, the different areas that we need to work on, we can continue to build on that,” Blight said.

The Eagles have a fresh wave of young talent to support the returning players, and one of those young players playing with the seven seniors will be Kati Anne Sheperd. She is already looking to the team’s leaders to help her improve.

“It’s motivating, and it’s really great to have a great set of seniors and captains to be able to look up to,” Sheperd said. “Blight has done a really great job putting the team together and helping get everybody prepared and excited for the season. And so, I’m just excited to be part of a really great group of girls this year. Everybody’s so welcoming and so kind and everyone wants to win.”

A big positive for this year’s team is its depth, which Blight believes is the best they’ve had in some time. The Eagles have many players with similar positions, and that has made assembling a starting 11 difficult but exciting for the coaching staff.

“I couldn’t tell you what my starting 11 is,” Blight said. “So, for me that’s a great problem to have because I’m still kind of putting in different people in different places. There’s competition in our squad this year. I think that we’re deeper than what we have been before, and so for me, that’s another kind of intrinsic motivation for them to compete for positions amongst the squad.”

That depth and talent will be needed in a loaded schedule which includes Vestavia Hills, Hoover, Mountain Brook and the Lakeshore Shootout.

That’s even before Oak Mountain gets to its gauntlet of an area with Spain Park and Hewitt-Trussville both in the top six of the preseason coaches poll and Chelsea on the rise as well.

While the Eagles enter the season as the top ranked team in the state, Blight knows that they can’t take a night off when the Birmingham region is so loaded.

“It’s going to be four of the top 10 probably in the state,” Blight said. “Game by game, you’ve got to be ready to show up and play. There’s no given games in our area or anywhere in Birmingham, really, and that’s one of the things with our schedule is we’ll play a tough schedule on purpose. Hopefully that gets us ready for those crucial games.”

Even though Oak Mountain will face challenges throughout the season, Blight and the players believe their culture is as strong as ever and will drive them to success.

Blight has seen great selflessness and motivation from the Eagles and plans to use that drive as a strength.

“As always, our team culture is a strength,” Blight said. “Everyone does it for every other teammate. Obviously, I have a job in games, but my biggest job is to get them ready for the games. Once they step across the white line, they kind of take over that and I think that with the unity and willing to do stuff and compete for each other, pick each other up when it’s tough, I think that’s one of our strengths.”

Pretner is one of those key voices driving the culture forward. While she suffered an ACL injury that will keep her on the sidelines for most if not all of her final season, she still strives to be there to support her teammates.

“I’m looking to just be a leader and be a voice out there that anyone can rely on, and if you need to be picked up, then I can be there to pick you up, or if you need just a little pep talk, I’ll be there,” Pretner said.

While she is disappointed that she can’t take the field with her teammates, she wants enjoy every moment and make a lasting impact.

“I’m sad right now, but I know that this happened for a reason,” Pretner said. “I hope that anyone can use this to keep pushing and use it as motivation and get better, and know that if something happens and something’s taken away from me, you can get it back, and you can work hard to get it back. Just wanting to be a leader, I think that this is going to help me when I do come back, being able to talk better on the field and be a better teammate.”

That mentality of not taking a single day for granted is what drives Oak Mountain this season.

Even with their years of success, the Eagles know how quickly that can all change, especially between last year’s semifinals defeat and the pandemic-shortened undefeated season in 2020 that the current seniors got to witness firsthand.

Their goal is to play with their best effort, leaving it all on the field to go as far as they can this year.

“They’ve experienced it all, and I think that helps,” Blight said. “We’re big on, ‘Play every day like it’s your last because you never know when it could be.’”