Sharing a Passion: Pinecrest Coach, All-State Player Bond Over Soccer
By Norma Stilwell
Special to The Pilot
During the last decade, it has been an accepted fact and a source of pride that the Pinecrest High School boys’ soccer teams have been overachievers.
In a community with strong recreational soccer teams and a flourishing club feeder program (AC Sandhills), the Patriots have evolved into one of the elite 4-A boys’ teams in the state, earning three consecutive Final Four playoff spots since 2009.
However, following the 2011 season, the team was in need of head coach and had lost 16 players to graduation, including two all-state honorees. Pinecrest put out an SOS for a new coach. That new coach would cull his 2012 team from a successful junior varsity squad, several players with limited varsity action and only five guys who had extended varsity experience. On paper, that coach would have a perceived uphill climb.
Pinecrest didn’t need to look far: In July they hired history teacher Evan Saleeby, succeeding Todd Abbey as head coach. A self-described soccer “addict,” the UNC Pembroke graduate/soccer player had coached at Hoke County and had also worked at AC Sandhills as a coach. He had been Abbey’s varsity assistant and head jayvee coach in 2011.
“I was certainly aware of the success of the Pinecrest program, and I really respected Todd as a coach,” the 28-year-old Saleeby said. “I was nervous to be named head coach, but it was so exciting for me.”
And because it is Pinecrest soccer, the bar was permanently raised, the expectations were high, and the learning curve was immediate.
A native of Rocky Mount, Va., the former midfielder grew up playing some spirited backyard matches with younger sister Erin, also a high school coach at their alma mater. Thanks to nearly limitless soccer cable access, the player, who used to record, rewatch and learn from a few TV games, passionately watches his sport constantly and has fulfilled his dream to be a coach, the best way for him to “stay in the game.”
“It’s usually not the case that a new coach knows everybody on the team, but because of coaching jayvee and through the club, I knew how they played and I admit coming in that I did have high expectations,” he said.
Saleeby is also laid back, rarely gets riled up on the sidelines, and has been accused of not having a pulse. But this guy has always had a true passion for soccer and, in his first order of business, he set about finding a formation for his collection of diverse soccer players that would ultimately create the next winning Patriot team. Thus began Pinecrest soccer — Saleeby-style.
He started volunteer summer workouts earlier than usual so that the guys could get used to playing with each other. And he began constructing a configuration that would work for the personnel that made up the team.
“I felt like we couldn’t quite do like last year’s team, so we played a 4-3-2-1,” he shared. “Most of the guys had never played it before, and I had never coached it before.
“But I liked it and felt it would work for this team, and I had the perfect player to play up top, although most forwards don’t like playing alone, or in the ‘1’ position.”
The player he had in mind was preseason all-state candidate senior Hayden Little. Saleeby’s goal with his new team and his new formation was to get as far into the playoffs as they could. And Little’s unquestionable obsession with soccer and his undeniable determination to win matched that of his coach.
The tall boy who always played with kids older than him in the early Sandhills Youth Soccer League days and who constantly fought hard for his spot is the youngest son of Pinehurst residents Karen and Chris Little, both collegiate student athletes. His older brother, Blaine, also played for Pinecrest.
“Something that I kept in my mind came during my sophomore year — my first year as a varsity player,” Little said recently. “We played Jordan (Durham Jordan) in the Final Four, and even though we lost 3-0, it was quite an experience playing against them.
“I was as tall as they were but they were definitely bigger and faster, and I realized they had a lot of skill, and I needed to build myself up and prove to myself I could play at their level.”
So the lanky, 6-foot-4½ inch center worked hard, both as a member of the Premier League’s NC Fusion U17 team from Greensboro and soccer’s Olympic Development Program, both next-level avenues for advanced play and college recruiting. According to Little, he works out at the gym, he’s been eating, trying to get bigger and be better with that all-important “first touch,” increasing his ability to possess the ball.
E. J. O’Keeffe is Little’s Fusion coach and an assistant soccer coach at High Point University and has witnessed his maturation process.
“Hayden has grown as a person and player over the past couple of years,” O’Keeffe said. “His size and competitive nature cause defenses fits. He is a natural finisher whose best days of soccer are ahead of him.”
Little views his height as an advantage, especially in the role Saleeby had for his senior offensive leader. With his long legs, his stride was certainly a benefit. He outdistanced his opponents easily with his one step equaling their two. His soaring jumps, headers and defensive presence in front of the goal made life easier for his Patriot teammates. The difficulty was for their opponents, who rarely marked him with just one player.
His senior season did present a few obstacles, despite all of the successes of the team.
“Last year, I played up top with someone (a graduated senior) whom I had played with all my life, and we played really well together,” Little said with a matter-of-fact shrug. “This season I had to take more responsibility rather than having people around me to depend on.
“I was the only person up top, and yes, it was more difficult playing that position alone.”
It may have been difficult in Little’s mind, but the team that Saleeby put together jelled nicely despite two intense early-season losses, characterized by the head coach as games that helped his young team refocus and work harder. Those would account for the only two losses in a solidly successful 16-2-4 season.
Saleeby did a quick flashback to his preseason expectations.
“Hayden fit in with the team last year better because they were the guys he had been playing with, his friends, so all of this (new coach, new formation, new team) was different for him,” he said, “but my expectations for him and this team were that they WOULD be successful. Just having him (Little) on my team — his last year, my first year — along with all of the seniors — was special. “
Having someone like Little as a leader was a tremendous asset for the Pinecrest team in the coach’s opinion.
“Because of his personality and stature, he commanded respect from the team,” Saleeby said. “One of his biggest attributes as a player was his game intelligence. He read situations very well and adjusted his game and that of the team accordingly.”
As expected, Little was the statistical offensive team leader, with 15 goals and 11 assists to his credit. He embraced a team leadership role all season: at practice as the “let’s-get-serious-about-this” guy, leading the team huddles on the pitch, and especially in the playoffs. And for the 17-year old who “loves everything about soccer,” and like his coach, watches it on TV learning to perfect his game, the rewards came to him and his team, that team who, on paper, had the perceived “up-hill climb” prior to the start of the season.
The Patriots repeated as Southeastern Conference champions and won the conference tournament championship, marching undefeated through those games. They had seven players, including Little, named to the all-conference and all-region teams. Little was player of the year (POY) for both conference and region. The vote for the region POY award was unanimous, according to Saleeby.
Postseason, Pinecrest provided some gutsy performances and heart-stopping state playoff moments, winning round two in a penalty shootout and rallying in round three to win with :42 seconds left in the game. Saleeby described that season-ending, round four defeat as “two inches away from advancing,” but he knows that’s how soccer is.
“Actually I think we could have gone farther, because that was our goal from the beginning,” he reflected. “But I do consider this team very successful, they got along well, and I couldn’t ask for more in my first year as head coach.”
Also, it is not too shabby that this first-year coach led his team to a final statewide No. 7 ranking for 4-A schools that are perennially loaded with soccer talent.
The success continued as well for Little. He was named to a coveted spot on the 4-A all-state team, one of just 37 players given that distinction this season. He hopes to be playing for a Division II or III team following graduation.
“Most D-I schools have already signed their recruits, and I just want to play,” Little admitted. “I’m one who will fight for a position, and with a D-II or D-III school, hopefully I’d have the opportunity to play as a freshman and sophomore.
“I’m doing everything I can to get bigger and stronger, so I don’t have any regrets. I just hope for the best.”
Saleeby certainly had few, if any, regrets during his first head-coaching experience. He learned that team discipline — keeping your cool and being composed — is high on the list of things he’ll take away from this season. He’s also big on team camaraderie.
“If they like playing with one another, they can be more successful on the field,” Saleeby said. “While discipline and friendships are tough to coach, in my mind they are two of the most important things we will work on next year.”
Pinecrest principal Joel County reflected on the positive achievements of Saleeby and his first team.
“Pinecrest has always been proud of the conference and state awards earned by our soccer teams, and certainly that is a testament to the quality of the players, the feeder program organization and the quality of our coaching staff,” said County in an interview.
“With his strong soccer background, Evan has united these players under his leadership, and we all congratulate him for the many successes of this year’s team. I couldn’t be more pleased with the way our soccer team has responded to Evan.”
There was a broad smile on Saleeby’s face that spoke volumes about next year.
“A lot of our players were able to get game and playoff experience this year, and during the season, they were able to step into starting roles and not miss a beat,” he said.
“That’s what I expect these guys to do next year: be the leaders on the team because they now have that experience. You know, I can’t wait until next year.”
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