WALES — See the void, fill the void.

Oak Hill is playing some of the stingiest defense in the Mountain Valley Conference this season following those simple instructions. The Raiders are 6-2-1 on the strength of a team defense that has surrendered just six goals, posted four shutouts and, at times, frustrated the most prolific offenses in the league.

“Our girls are buying into the system, and they’re understanding that if there’s no one there and they see it, it’s got to be them,” Oak Hill coach Jeremy Young said. “They’re recognizing it and they’re doing it.”

The Raiders boast as stout of a defensive backbone as there is in the conference in junior goalie Anna Dodge and sweeper/stopper Anna Nadeau, a senior, and Julia Ahlberg, a junior.

But as good as they are, the trio isn’t charged with carrying the defensive burden. Young expects everyone to help carry the load.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen a team that’s that willing. It’s certainly a good thing to see when you’re seeing midfielders and at times even forwards come back and play that defensive role,” he said. 

And that means those whose role is more defensive are allowed to keep moving forward if they see an opportunity at the other end.

“It definitely gives us freedom and allows us to be part of the play,” Nadeau said. “If we’re part of the play, we can keep going. We always hear someone say, ‘I’ve got you,’ or ‘I’ll stay back,’ and it gives us the ability to keep going forward. Once we know we’re not part of the play anymore, we can move back.”

Soccer players aren’t used to having that kind of freedom, and it took some time to get used to it and learn to take advantage of it.

“You grow up thinking when you’re put into a position, you need to stay in your box, in your lane,” said Nadeau, an all-MVC defender last year. “But we’ve learned over the past couple of years that it’s okay to switch as long as someone has your back. I think everyone’s gotten pretty good at it.”

They’ve gotten pretty good at it thanks to their communication and cohesiveness, Ahlberg said.

“I think it’s a combination of us all talking and being so close to each other that we have confidence in each one of us,” she said. 

Nadeau and Ahlberg switch seamlessly back-and-forth between sweeper and stopper. Both have the speed and skill to win a ball or force the opposition into a bad shot when they don’t.

“It works really well because I know that she’s there when I need her,” Ahlberg said. “It’s not just us. I really like how our wings come back and help us and how our middies come back. It really works because I know that when I don’t get it, one of them will sweep and take it and then I’ll have someone to pass up to.”

“They know how to move the ball around. When they’re in front, I don’t need to worry about too many shots,” Dodge said. 

Having Dodge as the last line of defense gives the rest of the Raiders a lot less to worry about, too.

“It gives our whole team confidence that we’ve got Anna in net and we can do what we need to do and she’s got us out back,” Nadeau said.

Now in her second year in the varsity net, Dodge is more aggressive and vocal.   

“Now that she’s more and more comfortable with the girls she’s playing with, I think we see her take, at times, more risks and command the field from the back,” he said. “She’s been less conservative, which I wouldn’t say has been a bad thing at all. There are a lot of keepers who are in the net all the time, and Anna’s more and more helping the defense by coming out of the box to play a ball and finding quick outlets, as well. So she’s helping us push tempo.”

“As an upperclassman, I’m more confident. But just having the team around me just makes it so much easier,” Dodge said. “Having the good defense, I don’t need to worry about every shot coming to me. If I have a one-on-one, my defense will rush back and get there before I even have to worry about it.”

The Raiders hope their versatility and depth help them improve upon last year’s 9-6 season and go deep into the rugged Class B South tournament. 

Ironically, the emotional low points to this season have also provided the most encouraging signs that they are one their way to doing that. Limiting the two most prolific offenses in the MVC, Monmouth and Madison, to one goal apiece, ultimately provided a shot of confidence to the Raiders.

“Our two losses were probably our best games,”  Dodge said. “Holding them both to one goal, obviously losing is frustrating, but to know we just held one of the best teams in the conference to one goal is big.”

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