For much of her first three seasons on the Reservoir girls soccer team, traditional striker Keri Rager was forced to play out of position to give her squad its best chance to win.
This year, however, the Gators' roster finally came together in a way that allowed Rager to move into a more comfortable goal-scoring role.
She didn't waste the opportunity.
"I didn't feel very comfortable in the other positions I played, and being comfortable in your position, in my opinion, is the biggest factor in playing well," she said. "Being comfortable gives me confidence, which results in me not having to worry about what to do in a foreign position. It just comes naturally to me."
Rager is quick to acknowledge the excellent play of her supporting cast, but as an individual, her accomplishments can't be ignored.
Her 13 goals, 13 assists and 39 points all ranked second among Howard County public school players this season, but coach Josh Sullivan says it was her leadership that set her apart from the rest of her competition.
Though she fell short in realizing her second state championship in four years with Reservoir, Rager has earned a different kind of title this fall: Howard County Times/Columbia Flier Player of the Year.
"It's a great honor, and it's something that is certainly deserving," Sullivan said of his team's top offensive weapon. "She was an absolute joy to coach. She was a great captain, leader and role model."
Rager burst onto the Howard County soccer scene her freshman year when Sullivan called her up to varsity during the season. The Gators won the 3A state championship that year, and since then, Rager has been an integral part of the team's plans to repeat, even if that meant her playing out of the spotlight.
"Because I've had her in every single position in the past two to three years, she hasn't gotten the recognition she may have otherwise," Sullivan explained.
Heading into her senior year, knowing that she would be playing in her more natural role, Rager said she didn't change much about her game. It was only when she participated in a summer soccer camp at Bridgewater College — where she will enroll next fall to play soccer — that she realized how important her final year could be.
"It was a lot different there," she said. "The girls (in college) are so much bigger. It toughened me as a player to know that's what I'm going to have to do. It made me realize that the only way I was going to get any better was to play my hardest."
Sullivan said Rager built off her strengths as she matured as a player throughout her time in high school.
"She's always been tiny," the coach joked. "And she's always had that speed. The difference was her ability with the ball. Keri could still play at a high rate of speed, but still be under control."
This season, Rager's offensive explosiveness always seemed to surface at the right moment. In the Gators' 16 games in 2013, Rager recorded a point in all but three of them. Of her four multi-goal games, three of them came against county opponents.
Reservoir earned a first-round bye in the state playoffs and eventually, after a win against county-foe Atholton in the regional quarterfinal, the team was matched up against heavyweight River Hill.
Rager scored in that game, but the Hawks went on to win in penalty kicks. Though she thought 2013 was going to be her team's year, Rager said she was proud of how hard they fought.
"It was tough, but honestly I wasn't too upset because we played so hard," she said of her last game.
With high school soccer in the rearview mirror, and basketball in full swing, Rager looks forward to what the future has in store. Bridgewater not only welcomes its newest member of its women's soccer team, but also a budding exercise science major as well.
Still, Rager leaves behind a captain position that may never be filled in quite the same way. A self-described "people person," she had a knack for rallying her teammates. Sullivan said her play on the field will leave a void, but it will be her personality that will be missed the most.
"Everybody loves her," the coach said. "I think Bridgewater is getting somebody extremely special. I wish the best for her."
Named to the all-county first team are:
Alex Hamer, River Hill. A state champion two out of her first three years at River Hill, Hamer's partnership on the field with Sheridan Street made the two first-team all-county selections a "dynamic duo" according to multiple county coaches.
Three times a first-team all-county selection, the junior racked up eight goals and 10 assists in 2013. Her 36 career assists have been a crucial part of the Hawks' success.
"Her speed is an asset, with or without the ball," said coach Brian Song. "She will be one of the leaders in Howard County next year. I am looking forward to her having an outstanding season."
Often setting up Street for a goal — including the overtime game-winner against Centennial for the 3A East regional championship — Hamer's ability to effectively distribute the ball was an important piece to River Hill's state championship puzzle in 2013.
Taylor Hensh, Marriotts Ridge. Mustangs coach Robin Grey said she is always wary of her players wearing loud, colorful cleats, saying they better be able to live up to the flash.
Hensh, clad in her bright orange kicks, did just that this season.
Grey described the senior forward as an explosive playmaker who has an "uncanny ability to finish off anything that comes her way."
Leading her team with 20 points (8 goals, 4 assists), Hensh's presence was felt whenever she set foot on the field.
"With Taylor, she gives you her blood, sweat and tears every minute of every game and practice," Grey added. "Her work ethic is impeccable."
Over the course of her career with the Mustangs, Hensh tallied 25 goals, which ranks first in school history.
Next fall, she will hang up those bright orange soccer cleats in favor of a pair of red, black and gold ones as a member of the University of Maryland women's lacrosse team.
Anna Mitchell, Centennial. With 40 points (11 goals, 18 assists), Mitchell not only led her team, but Howard County as a whole.
As one of the strongest forwards in the county, Mitchell's rise from a sophomore role-player, to a junior playmaker in 2013 was impressive.
"Her improvement from last year to this year was outstanding," said Eagles' coach Steve Baxter. "She worked really hard from day one. She's very unselfish."
The Eagles proved to be one of the better teams this season, and Mitchell's knack for knowing when to distribute and when to take over was a big part of that success.
One of the prominent basketball players in the county , look for Mitchell to make an impact on the court as well this winter.
Sheridan Street, River Hill. Though she was never named player of the year in her four seasons at River Hill, Sheridan Street has solidified herself in Howard County girls soccer history with a career that many will attempt to replicate for years to come.
She got off to a slow start by her standards in 2013, but her seven goals in a five-game playoff stretch propelled the Hawks to a second consecutive 3A state title.
"She had an outstanding career and made this team go," coach Brian Song said of the Syracuse University-bound senior. "She will be missed next year in Howard County."
In four years, Street racked up 61 goals.
Jen Giles, Mt. Hebron. For a Mt. Hebron team that always seemed to be on the cusp of reaching that next level, Jen Giles consistently gave her squad a fighting chance.
Giles tallied nine goals and three assists on the year from her midfield position, ranking second on her team in points overall.
Before the season, coach Tim Deppen described Giles as a "feisty, aggressive player that dominated the center of the field."
Given the nature of her position, Giles' toughness was an important piece to the Vikings' two playoff victories.
Jessie Hopkins, River Hill. A newcomer to this list, Jessie Hopkins was a big reason why the Hawks were able to repeat as state champions.
Though she only scored four times, her 11 assists from the wings often set up the offense for success.
"She had great ball controls, great crosses from both sides and she can find the open teammates," said Brian Song. "She literally started the offense on her runs on left or right."
With River Hill losing some key players to graduation next season, Hopkins represents the newest crop of rising talent. Her ability to distribute, as well as score when called upon, makes her one of the more dangerous players heading into 2014.
Sarah Hulit, Wilde Lake. Not many other players meant more to their team than Sarah Hulit did to Wilde Lake this season. The senior tallied three goals and four assists on the year, with one of those scores coming against Glenelg in the first round of the state playoffs.
"Sarah is one of the most versatile players I have ever coached, but that doesn't begin to measure her value to our team," said coach Wildecats coach Davia Procida. "She is selfless, inclusive and always positive, bringing out the best in those around her."
Though her player stands just over five feet in height, Procida spoke of Hulit as a giant on the field.
"She never backed down," the coach added. "She is fearless"
Ruthie Lucas, Centennial. When the Howard County coaches were choosing their all-county teams, they had a hard time deciding where to place Ruthie Lucas in terms of a position.
She patrolled the middle of the field, played up in the offense to create goal-scoring opportunities and stayed back to fill defensive holes, making her a true renaissance player for an already talented Centennial roster. The senior still found a way to rack up 10 goals and five assists, and her coach said he admired her team mentality all season long.
"She was a great leader, and really just set the tone as far as attitude and desire," said coach Steve Baxter. "She was a very dynamic player and played all three levels. I'm curious to what kind of numbers she would have had if she stayed in one place."
Callie Allen, River Hill. With a pair of state titles and four all-county selections in her pocket, Callie Allen graduates from River Hill as one of the county's top defenders in the last four years. Playing in a position that rarely receives the attention it deserves, Allen's ability to adapt in pressure situations was put on display in the 3A state championship game against Huntingtown, when an injury forced her to move into more of a sweeper role. The change helped solidify the Hawks' shutout victory.
With an offensive skillset accompanying her impressive arsenal of weapons on the field, Allen's vision and control over the defense will be missed next season.
Coach Brian Song called her one of the most unselfish players he has ever coached, adding that she always led by example on and off the field.
Nia Crump, Mt. Hebron. Throughout the season, Vikings coach Tim Deppen constantly praised the way Nia Crump played the game of soccer. The sweeper notched eight assists and one goal in 2013, making her one of the most exciting returning players next season as well.
Crump operated as a silent assassin, often times creating opportunities that don't show up in a stat book.
Deppen said Crump — also a very talented basketball player — was physically, and mentally, the strongest player he had on his roster. Following every win, it was clear that Crump was involved in some way.
Carolyn Eichhorn, Centennial. After finding her way onto the all-county list for the second consecutive year, Carolyn Eichhorn grew into an important leadership position this season as one of the team's captains.
"She was a solid rock in our defensive line," said coach Steve Baxter. "She was one of our field generals when it came to possession and starting the attack."
Adding that her ability to play strong on 50-50 balls and transitions, Baxter said Eichhorn's long throw-ins and goal-kicks provided the Eagles with an advantage in multiple games.
The Eagles averaged less than one goal allowed per game in 2013, and it was Eichhorn's command of the back line that attributed to that defensive success.
Delaney Reiff, Reservoir. A four-year starter since the first time she put on a Gators jersey, coach Josh Sullivan described Delaney Reiff as one of the smartest soccer players he has ever had on his roster.
Her IQ in the sport was only matched by her physical toughness and, according to her coach, she would need to be pulled off the field before she left it willingly.
In her last game of her career, Reiff scored just her third goal of the season in an effort to keep Reservoir in position to pull off a win at River Hill.
For her impressive efforts on the field, Reiff earned herself a Division I scholarship. Next season, she will enroll at Duquesne University, where she will join the women's soccer team.
Jenna Bergquist, Marriotts Ridge. For the second consecutive year, Jenna Bergquist has been named Howard County's top goalkeeper. Her 126 saves out of 140 shots amounted for a save percentage of 90, and, according to coach Robin Grey, she was a "rock in the back whose presence on the field is undeniable."
In 2013, the Mustangs won their first regional championship in school history. According to Grey, Bergquist's experience in the net was a big part of that success.
"Although she exudes confidence in the box, it is her dexterity that sets her apart from others and gives us a completive edge in games where our team is sometimes outmatched and outplayed," the coach said. "She shows no fear."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun