Roland Park soccer program counting on youth movement

Losing three-time league All-Star defender Serene Mirza to graduation is difficult enough for Roland Park Country School soccer coach Kevin Cooper.

When Cooper also lost star center midfielder Nikki Hudson to a severe knee injury in late June, he became concerned.

Hudson was poised to commit to play at the collegiate level after the University of Florida, Rutgers University and Loyola University Maryland pursued showed interest.

"She is the best player I have coached in 10 years at Roland Park," Cooper said of Hudson. "For us, you kind of want your strength up the middle to be your forward up top, your center midfielder and your center back. We lost two of the three. That's the spine of your team."

Without Mirza and Hudson, Cooper will build the Reds around a batch of talented young players.

With that in mind, as many as five sophomores and three freshmen could be on the starting unit when the Reds open the season Sept. 6 at Hereford High in Parkton.

And Cooper is fine with that, believing his squad will still be a strong contender in Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland B Conference.

"The girls play (club) all year-round," Cooper explained. "Even though they are young players they are still very experienced and play a high level of soccer. Before, we just had really good athletes with not a lot of soccer experience."

Roland Park senior defender Beth Kelly said the skills of the underclassmen are impressive.

"We have more soccer talent than we have ever had at Roland Park," she noted. "Our freshmen will step up big. I am excited about the new group. They bring a lot of energy."

Kelly is one of six returning starters from a team that went 9-8 overall last year and 5-4 in B Conference, which included a loss to reigning champion Bryn Mawr in a tournament semifinal.

The presence of Kelly and two other returning defenders, senior Erika Brager and junior Maiya Futrell, will help ease the loss of Mirza.

"Right now, I am seeing leadership from Beth and Erika," Cooper said. "They tasted going to the championship (in 2010). They liked it and they definitely want to go back."

Sophomore Mackenzie Birely, promoted from last year's junior varsity, bolsters the backline.

The defense will be protecting a new goalie, either sophomore Caroline Pate or her classmate Didi Lowitt.

Cooper elevated Pate from the JV and Lowitt served as a backup to the graduated Betsy Angel last season.

"Caroline played club all summer and Didi is experienced as well," Cooper said. "Who starts in goal will probably be our biggest battle. It's up in the air."

There's no question about who will start at forward in the 4-4-2 alignment, considering sophomores Brittany Day and Francesca Whitehurst are returnees who combined for 22 goals and 12 assists in 2011.

Freshman striker Anna Houser will also see significant minutes

A midfield featuring freshmen Maddi Rubino and Taylor Brewer, junior Toby Dubin and sophomore Jenna Janes, a transfer from Park, will be feeding the frontline.

The Reds will playing in a revamped 12-team B Conference without Bryn Mawr and Severn, both of which moved up to the A Conference. Still, Maryvale, St. Mary's and the Institute of Notre Dame dropped down from the A to the B and Chapelgate moved up to the B from the C.

"I think it will be a very, very competitive conference," Cooper said. "Teams one through 12 will be very solid."

Kelly added: "We are playing a lot of new teams for the first time. It will be very challenging."

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