On days before a game, the Marriotts Ridge boys soccer team cranks up the intensity for the last precious few minutes of practice.
The team splits into three groups, with two on the field at a time. They are crammed inside the penalty area, with two goals placed at each end. A ball is thrown in the middle and the feisty fray — simply dubbed "The Game with the Goals" — begins. Pinball-like shots, courageous defense and a fair share of trash talk follow.
The first team to score twice stays on the field, while the loser leaves. The third team eagerly jumps in for the next round. The game continues until the alarm on coach Kevin Flynn's watch goes off at 4:55 p.m., at which point the two teams on the field at that moment play for the win.
The winners' prize is modest — first dibs at the ensuing pasta party while the other teams round up practice equipment — but its goal is more lofty. The game simulates the area inside the 18-yard mark, the tight quarters where skills get sharpened, decisions are made quickly, competitiveness grows fierce and, most importantly, camaraderie is harvested.
It's an area in which Marriotts Ridge has excelled while winning the last four Class 2A state championships.
"It's kind of like a joke, but, at the same time, I don't think there's anything we do in practice that's more competitive," said senior co-captain Amir Najib, who has 17 goals and eight assists this season. "The whole game is inside the 18, so you're either attacking or defending. That's really what most high school games come down to, so that game prepares us perfectly."
Marriotts Ridge has been nearly perfect in recent years. Prior to a 3-2 overtime loss at River Hill on Oct. 1, the No. 4 Mustangs (11-1) won 30 straight games dating back to Oct. 20, 2011. In completing a 17-0 season with a 4-0 win against Queen Anne's last year, they became the fourth program to capture a state-best four straight titles.
A record-breaking fifth is expected, and with it comes pressure.
"A lot of pressure," senior co-captain Kwame Owusu-Boaitey says without hesitation. "I just try to stay relaxed and understand that I have my team behind me and know we're all in it as a team."
So how does a school that just opened in 2005 and didn't have any seniors until 2007 find such immediate success in, of all places, soccer-rich Howard County?
Current and former players will tell you it starts with Flynn, who has developed a knack for recognizing what he has to work with and putting the pieces in the right place.
This year's team only returned five players who saw significant playing time last year, and the defense was completely overhauled, but that was nothing new for the Mustangs. In 2010, they had a similar numbers crunch after winning their first state title. Flynn decided to put an emphasis on defense to win close games. It resulted in a second crown.
"Coach Flynn lets the team have fun and he lets the players play to their full abilities," said Pat Sullivan, the team captain and star of the 2010 team, who now plays at La Salle University. "He doesn't restrict players to certain positions or certain things he wants. He kind of lets everybody play freely. He's a really good motivator and everybody enjoys playing for him."
Prior to taking the Marriotts Ridge job in 2006, Flynn spent two years coaching at Reservoir, another newer school in Howard with a program starting from scratch. From a win-loss standpoint, his time there wasn't successful, but the lessons learned have paid dividends at Marriotts Ridge.
After seeing his Reservoir teams out of most games by halftime because they were up against more experienced and talented opponents, he decided to focus on defense at Marriotts Ridge.
"I wanted the games to be competitive. They weren't going to be pretty and we weren't going to create many scoring chances, but if it was still close late in the game, I knew the guys were getting experience of being in a competitive game," said Flynn, whose team went 6-10-1 without any seniors that season. "There was only one game where we were out of it at halftime, and to gain that competitive attitude was invaluable."
Marriotts Ridge gradually turned the "competitive attitude" into what Flynn calls a "champion's mentality."
The Mustangs' earliest defining moments came in 2008 when they enjoyed three wins against mighty River Hill. The first win in the regular season put them in the driver's seat for a spot in the Howard County championship game. The second — in the county championship game — proved the first wasn't a fluke, and then the Mustangs beat the Hawks a third time to capture the program's first region title.
They lost the next game — a 1-0 setback against J.M. Bennett in the state semifinals — and finished 16-1. They haven't lost a playoff game since.
"That season was a big turning point for us mentally. Everybody was on the same page, we felt like we belonged and we had new expectations," said Flynn, who won three state titles as a player at Wilde Lake in the early 1980s. "It kind of all snowballed from there."