Westminster OM leaning on culture and tough schedule to make another Final 4 run

Published 10:16 am Thursday, February 1, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

While the Westminster at Oak Mountain Knights reached the Class 1A-3A Final 4 in 2023, coach Cody Baxter and his players were hungry for more.

The Knights fell just short of playing for a state championship last season, which didn’t accomplish their goal of winning the title. This year, they want to finish the job.

“(We had a) good season last year, but we’re definitely not content with that,” senior Andrew Giadersich said. “We want to keep working, keep getting better. Just everything we do, touches, just working hard this offseason and we just hope we can continue to improve, get back there again this year.”

Those improvements are coming faster now with much of that Final 4 core coming back for another season. Eight of Westminster OM’s 11 starters are returning in 2024, including six seniors.

However, Baxter emphasized that with the level of talent on this year’s team, even those eight returning starters aren’t guaranteed to line up in the season opener.

Part of that is because they have five players who were at the school last year but did not play for the Knights but now will immediately contribute to the squad.

His goal instead is to create the best tactical system that gets the most out of his players.

“I’m not the type of coach who’s going to try to fit a square into a circle or anything like that,” Baxter said. “We’re going to utilize what we have. But at the same time, we’re going to be a team that plays to our strengths.”

The Knights will have time to determine their best formation in the buildup to area play, but before then, they will play a challenging schedule that their players have come to expect year-in and year-out.

Westminster OM will face John Carroll, Chelsea, Spain Park, Mountain Brook, Indian Springs and Briarwood throughout the season in addition to their difficult area of Altamont, Childersburg, Cornerstone Schools, Holy Spirit Catholic and Tarrant.

Baxter’s tactical mindset changes for those games and focuses on improving and growing closer as a team, even though their desire to win doesn’t fade away.

“We still use that to get us to where we got, and that’s something we’ll do again,” Baxter said. “Something I’ve told these guys before is, you can jump in a pool and you’ll probably swim pretty fast, but if you jump in the ocean and swim with the sharks, you’re probably going to swim the fastest you’ve ever swam in your life. So, we’re going to swim with the sharks and the 6A’s and 7A’s.”

To compete with such a high level of competition and pursue a state championship, the Knights will need to lean on their many leaders throughout the team. Westminster OM’s leaders go beyond leading by example and are true servant leaders.

They go as far as to do tasks reserved for freshmen on other teams like carrying water coolers or setting out cones, which Baxter says puts the Christian ideal of serving others first in practice.

“Something we say often is, ‘if serving is beneath you, then leadership is above you,” Baxter said. “So. if you’re going to be a leader on the team, you need to be showing that servant attitude from the start.”

Senior Noah Holmes is one of those players. He wants to leave a lasting legacy at Westminster OM and build the culture by mentoring younger players, something he did while he was injured during the 2023 season.

“Obviously, I want to get to Huntsville, I want to do well in my last year, but I want to make sure that the team culture is where it needs to be and just to leave a good impact on these guys, not just in soccer but as men,” Holmes said.

Players like Holmes and Giadersich are why Baxter is so proud of the culture throughout his squad, especially when that is combined with All-State, All-County and All-Metro talent on the field.

“The culture of the team is all-encompassing,” Baxter said. “We have 22 guys on the varsity roster and I can see every single one of those guys contributing in some way on the field, but more so all of them contributing off the field. We do things to enhance and build the relationships and dynamics of everybody on our team in lots of different ways.”