Amir Najib knew his time had come.
Having been a varsity player in the Marriotts Ridge program since his freshman year, Najib had learned from the best. He had watched how midfielders Patrick Sullivan and Brad Martinelli, among others, had assumed leadership roles as seniors and guided their respective Mustang teams to success on the county and state levels.
So, as one of just a handful of returning starters this fall on a Mustangs' team that had won its fourth consecutive state championship the previous season, Najib relished the opportunity to try and continue the legacy.
"Every year there is an expectation that someone is going to step up into that leadership position; that's the way it's always been here at Marriotts Ridge. This year, I felt like it was my turn and I tried to embrace it," he said. "Some people might have felt like it was a lot of pressure, but I wanted that. It's an honor to be in that position for this team and I worked hard every day to try and live up to the guys before me."
While Marriotts Ridge fell a few games short of its ultimate goal this fall of a state-record fifth straight state title, Najib more than met the standard of those before him. In fact, in some ways, he raised the bar even further.
In one of the greatest offensive single seasons in Howard County history, the senior midfielder finished with 21 goals and 10 assists for a county-best 52 points. It's the highest point total for a county player since Mt. Hebron's Mike Napolitano (61 points) in 2006 and the most points by a county public school midfielder since Howard's Todd Haskins registered a county-record 72 points in 1989.
It's because of that offensive explosion — combined with an all-around game and leadership role that helped Marriotts Ridge to a share of the county title this fall — that Najib has been named the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier Player of the Year.
"We've had some great players, but he's right up there near the top," said Marriotts Ridge coach Kevin Flynn, whose program has now produced five of the last six Howard County Players of the Year. "And, I tell you what, his work rate is the best we've ever had. In terms of getting up and down the field both ways, there is nobody better than Amir. His competitiveness is on an entirely different level."
Ironically enough, it was a friendly competition between Najib and teammate Jeff Kammerer that helped pave the way to the Mustangs' 14-2 campaign. The dynamic duo, which Flynn says developed a tremendous chemistry over the years in practice and on their club team, fed off one another to produce the greatest offensive season in Marriotts Ridge program history.
Kammerer ended up matching Najib's 21 goals and added eight assists of his own, making the two of them the second set of teammates in county history to combine for more than 100 points. Marriotts Ridge as a team averaged 3.5 goals a game.
"They both pushed each other and helped each other become better players," Flynn said. "It was funny because I think they each wanted to outdo the other, but it was all in an effort to make us the best team we possibly could be."
When the dust settled on the season, Najib had registered at least one point (a goal or and assist) in every game but two and accumulated four hat tricks.
As an attacking midfielder, there were few better in the entire state. But, despite his scoring ability, Najib says he never had any desire to move up into a forward role.
"I played striker first half of the year my sophomore year and, honestly, I'm just not a successful scorer as a striker," Najib said. "When I'm in the midfield, I'm extremely involved in the play and I gain confidence in that. My strength has never been being able to get behind the defense like guys like Jeff can — he's brilliant at that."
The truth is Najib was so versatile that Flynn needed him in the middle anyway. Already great with the ball at his feet, Najib worked to become just as good at winning balls in the air during the offseason. This fall, with that added to his arsenal, he became one of the Mustangs' best players in terms of defensive clearances.
"He was obviously an excellent attacking midfielder, but, if we had asked him to, he could have easily been the best defensive midfielder on the team. He has the skills to play anywhere," Flynn said.
Looking ahead, Najib still hasn't decided on his college plans. He's had conversations with several Division I teams, including Saint Joseph's and James Madison, but nothing is imminent at the moment. Flynn says, though, that he thinks Najib has the skills to play almost anywhere in the country.
But no matter where he may end up, the Mustangs' coach says Najib's place in Marriotts Ridge history is secure.
"For the younger guys on the team, he set the example for what can be done and what level they should aspire to," Flynn said. "Here's a guy that was clearly the best player on the team, yet every day in training he was also clearly the hardest worker.
"He showed each of the guys just how good a high school player could be."
Named to the first team all-county squad are:
Jeff Kammerer, Marriotts Ridge. If not for his teammate Amir Najib's stellar campaign, Kammerer could have easily garnered Player of the Year honors this fall. As it was, he combined with Najib to create one of the best one-two offensive combos in Howard County boys soccer history.
With the Mustangs having graduated its top two scorers from last year — Nick Applegate and Brad Martinelli — there was some inherent pressure on Kammerer to fill the void. And, by more than doubling his goal and assist totals this fall, the talented senior was more than up to the task. He finished with 21 goals and 8 assists, ranking him second in the county. At one point during the year, he scored in 15 consecutive games. Game-winning goals in thrilling victories over Whitman and Reservoir were among the highlights.
Hans Kouame, Oakland Mills. In the open field there were few in the state faster and more skilled than Kouame, who wreaked havoc as the main guy up top for the Scorpions this fall. After making second-team all-county last year while compiling 19 points, Kouame more than doubled his offensive production as a senior.
He finished with 17 goals and eight assists for a total of 42 points, which placed him third among county public school players. Seven times he produced the game-winning goal and among his big performances was a multi-goal game in a regional championship victory over Southern that advanced Oakland Mills to the state semifinals for the first time in 10 years.
Jake Turney, River Hill. The Hawks' senior spent much of the season nursing injuries — ones that either limited him or kept him out of action altogether. But when he was on the field, there were few players better than the talented forward. His technical ability in space and strength in one-on-one situations gave opposing defenses fits.
He finished with six goals and six assists for a River Hill team that captured a share of the program's first county title since 2007. The great thing about Turney was that he gave the Hawks something tangible almost every time he was on the field, registering a goal or an assist in eight of the 12 contests in which he appeared. Turney will head to play at UNC-Wilmington next fall.
Max Dwyer, Centennial. A first-time all-county selection, the powerful Dwyer was the "fulcrum of the midfield" for the Eagles according to coach Jim Zehe. Having played alongside all-county player Peter Vorel and his older brother, Ian, as a junior midfielder, Dwyer was ready to assume a leadership role this fall.
He was a tremendous weapon on set pieces, taking the majority of the team's free kicks. Between those plays and his passing ability in the open field, Dwyer finished the year with seven assists to tie for sixth highest in the county in that category. He also added three goals to give him 13 points overall. A captain, Dwyer also doubled as one of the team's best defenders.
Mike Heitzmann, River Hill. Only a sophomore, Heitzmann is the only underclassmen on this year's all-county first team. With a great mix of speed and finishing ability, he not only improved on his 13 total points as a freshman but also ended up leading the co-county champion Hawks in scoring this fall. His 10 goals were fourth best in the county and his 21 points tied him for fifth overall.
Just as important as the number of goals, though, was when he got them. Heitzmann was responsible for the game-winning goal against Marriotts Ridge in overtime during the regular season and provided the game-tying goal in stoppage time against Reservoir in the playoffs. He scored a goal in eight of the team's last 13 games of the season.
Anand Pradeep, Mt. Hebron. For a Vikings team that improved its record this fall and advanced all the way to the region finals, having a senior leader like Pradeep went a long way. Described by his coach Mike Linsenmeyer as the "heart and soul" of Mt. Hebron's team, Pradeep was one of the county's best ball-winners in the air. Almost all of the Vikings long throws were designed to find the tall midfielder, who was masterful at flicking it on to his teammates.
Pradeep finished with two goals and six assists on the year, while also controlling play and distributing the ball in the midfield. Among the highlights was scoring a goal as part of the team's season-high five-goal outburst against Howard.
Heston Priestley, Centennial. As a second team all-county performer his junior year and the team's leading returning scorer this fall, there was an expectation that Priestley would become the face of the Eagles offense. It turns out the senior midfielder was more than ready for the role, as he improved his offensive numbers across the board. His nine goals and five assists were improvements in both categories and placed him fourth in the county in total points (23).
The great thing about Priestley, who served as a captain this year, was his versatility. Coach Jim Zehe said that he put his senior leader in literally every forward and midfield position at some point during the season depending on match-ups. Among the highlights for the honorable mention all-state pick was a two-goal effort in a 3-3 tie against Reservoir during the regular season.
Zach Riso, River Hill. The senior captain was the glue that pieced together a Hawks' squad that ranked among the top three county teams in goals scored (41 total) and goals against (10). A returning first-team player, Riso was actually tasked with more of a central midfield role this season and thus saw a slight drop in his scoring production. Still, he managed seven goals and six assists (20 points) to put him among the county's top 10 scorers.
On a River Hill team that registered 10 shutouts on its way to the program's first county and region titles since 2007, it was Riso's increased role on the other side of the ball though that really paid dividends. He was a huge key in the team's clearing and transition game and, at the same time, cemented himself as one of the area's most sound players with the ball at his feet.
Emilio Rodas, Reservoir. A repeat first-team selection, the versatile midfielder is a "born leader," according to his coach Reg Hahne. He seemed to always be around the ball for the Gators, whether he was winning possession and playing it ahead to the team's forwards, taking free kicks and corner kicks or finishing in front of the net. Rodas literally could do a little bit of everything.
For the second year in a row, the senior was widely considered the county's best guy on corner kicks — showcasing pinpoint accuracy. He ended up with a team-high seven assists on the season, tying him for the sixth highest total in the county, to go along with four goals.
Jack Jacobs, Atholton. A repeat first-team selection, Jacobs was one of the county's best on-ball defenders. Constantly man-marking the opposing team's best player, he consistently excelled for a Raiders team that won seven games this fall. "The truth is he's probably more of a central midfielder, but we asked him to be a central defender and he really grew into the role," coach Roch DeFrances said. "A captain for us the last two years, he really gave us amazing leadership."
Jacobs played a big role in Atholton registering three shutouts in a row during the middle of the season. He also pushed up offensively on several occasions to finish the year with two goals and three assists.
Eli Phillips, Oakland Mills. An every-game varsity player for all four years he was in high school, Phillips was also a captain the last two seasons for the Scorpions. On a backline that featured all new players in front of a first-year varsity goalie, he was the leader from day one this fall. "We don't even win half of our games without Eli's leadership and experience in our back four," Oakland Mills coach Don Shea said.
With him leading the way, Oakland Mills registered four shutouts this season. Phillips also pushed up to add three goals and two assists to help out the team's offense.
Kyle Saunderson, Reservoir. A "rock" defensively for the Gators, according to coach Reg Hahne, Saunderson took the leap this fall as a senior to become one of the county's best in the back. He was part of a Reservoir defense that recorded four shutouts and only allowed four teams to score multiple goals against them this year.
While he traditionally didn't push up into the offensive third, he did register an assist in a one-goal win over Mt. Hebron and a goal in a one-goal victory over Long Reach.
Zack Smythe, Wilde Lake. A repeat first-team selection, who has actually been an all-county player since his sophomore year, Smythe was one of the few bright spots this fall for a Wildecat team that won just one game overall. While Wilde Lake didn't score many goals, Smythe and the team's solid back four kept the Wildecats in the majority of its games. Only five times this fall did an opponent score more than two goals on Wilde Lake.
His ability to read plays and put himself in the right position has always been among his greatest strengths. Offensively, he chipped in with two goals and two assists. "Zach's a highly skilled player and really treasured playing soccer at the Lake," coach Jon Robinson said. "His skill set will be hard to replace."
Zack Haussler, Glenelg. The stats don't tell the whole story for Haussler, who allowed 23 goals this fall, but still was almost a unanimous first-team selection among the county's coaches. His athleticism and big frame made things difficult for opponents to score during run-of-play situations, with coach Andy Shearer pointing out that more than half of Haussler's goals against came off set pieces.
Haussler and the Glenelg defense held six opponents to one goal or less, including one stretch of four straight games — all victories — at the end of the season. In the team's 3-1 playoff win over Atholton, Haussler came through with seven saves.