McDonogh boys soccer coach Steve Nichols cut back on yelling at his players last season, when he fielded his youngest team in 17 years.
His approach confused some of the Eagles, who went a McDonogh-unlike 12-4-3 and didn’t advance to at least a Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference semifinal for the first time in Nichols’ tenure.
“I remember (midfielder) George Campbell saying, ‘It seems like you don’t care as much this year. You are not really getting on us,’ ” the coach said. “But I really couldn’t do that when you start five freshmen and play seven.”
All those freshmen, who are now sophomores — Babatunde Akinlosotu, Piroz Bahar, Nicholas Brown, Michael DeShields, Andrew Hopkins, Keegan Kelly and Cale Thorne — grew up quickly.
They helped take McDonogh from Nichols’ worst season to his best.
The Eagles finished a sterling 21-0-1 — including 17-0-1 in league play — after winning Nichols’ seventh A Conference championship by beating St. Paul’s, 1-0, at Archbishop Spalding on Sunday on DeShields’ first goal of the season with 10 seconds remaining in regulation.
The Student Sports Fab 50 boys high school poll ranked McDonogh the No. 1 team in the country and the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll lists the Eagles ninth.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t think we would be this good,” said Nichols, who has a career record of 290-62-31. “It could be the best team we have ever had because we have never gone undefeated. I think we should be better next year and we could be better in two years. It’s scary.”
The Eagles outscored their opponents, 71-8, with 17 shutouts.
“This is the best team we have ever had as far as playing soccer and keeping possession,” Nichols said. “We tend to really wear teams down. We have the ball so much it’s very difficult for teams to get a lot of scoring chances.”
Defenders Thorne, DeShields, senior Brett Ebel and juniors Erumuse Momoh and Andrew MacDonald play a physical and solid technical game.
“As far as pressing and putting teams under pressure, they are very, very good at doing that,” Nichols said.
The outstanding defense protects senior goalie Calvin Livingston, a first-year starter who has committed to play lacrosse at Towson University.
Livingston had big shoes to fill after the graduation of Matt Sanchez, a four-year starter, now playing at Old Dominion University.
Livingston proved he could handle the job, setting a school record for shutouts when the Eagles blanked Gilman, 4-0, in an MIAA A Conference semifinal Nov. 6.
“The one thing Calvin has been is really steady,” Nichols said. “He’s been really professional back there. He hasn’t had to make a lot of saves, but he made some really big saves in some really big situations for us. I think his attitude and personality this year have been brilliant with this group of kids.”
When Livingston did allow an occasional goal, it was offset by how many McDonogh scored.
Campbell, a senior midfielder with 23 goals and 15 assists, junior midfielder Connor Smith (16 goals, 14 assists) and Akinlosotu led the offense.
Both Campbell and Smith are headed to the University of Maryland next fall to play for the Terps.
Nichols has been especially impressed with Campbell.
“George was the state player of the year as a junior,” Nichols said. “In my opinion, I think we have the best senior in the country. He’s been unbelievable this year. Any tough time we have had this year, he has just put us on his back.”
Although McDonogh didn't experience much adversity, one of the Eagles’ biggest challenges came in a 3-3 tie with St. Paul’s on Oct. 28.
“It was a huge moment,” Livingston said of trailing the upstart Crusaders, who are in their first year in the A Conference. “We were down, 1-0 and 2-1. We just fought back and kept the undefeated season going. We just didn’t really want to lose.”
And the Eagles didn't.