One day in early August, McDonogh girls soccer coach Harry Canellakis received several emails that had two common messages.
The first was congratulations on the news that his Eagles had been chosen as the No. 1 ranked team in Student Sports’ preseason Fab 50 national poll.
“A lot of different people, mostly coaching colleagues, were saying quote, unquote: ‘No pressure!’ “ Canellakis said.
The lofty status — the first time a girls soccer team in the Baltimore area had been ranked No. 1 nationally at the start of a season — didn’t last long, however, as McDonogh lost its top ranking the following week.
On Aug. 24, McDonogh traveled to then-No. 12 Strongsville (Ohio) and finished with a scoreless draw in a match that was considered a scrimmage for the Eagles but an official game for the home team. Originally, it was planned to be an official game for both sides, but a change in the Eagles’ schedule forced them to designate it as a scrimmage.
Regardless, the tie dropped McDonogh to No. 4 in Student Sports’ rankings before they moved back to No. 3 this week — providing the team with more motivation heading into the season.
A chance to reclaim the nation’s top spot could happen this weekend.
The Eagles start their season Friday when they host the annual McDonogh Invitational, which will include seven teams in the Fab 50 poll. McDonogh opens against No. 10 Maria Carrillo (Calif.) at 5:30 p.m., and then the tournament closes Saturday when the Eagles take on new No. 1 Northern Highlands (N.J.) at 7:15 p.m.
“Overall, we feel we have a very good team, and we know we have work to do,” Canellakis said following the tie. “And that’s true if we’re No. 1, No. 4 or not ranked at all.”
With several key players returning, as well as the addition of some promising newcomers, the Eagles already had plenty of incentive before the national rankings were released.
After going undefeated in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference during the regular season and cruising to the championship game last year, McDonogh was less than three minutes away from a third straight conference title before Archbishop Spalding tied the game at 2 and then won on penalty kicks.
Throw in the fact that the Eagles will play arguably the country’s toughest nonconference schedule — one that includes five teams that are also ranked in Student Sports’ Fab 50 poll — and it’s easy to understand why they’re eager to start the regular season.
Senior midfielder Anna Bialczak said last year’s loss to Spalding, combined with the tough schedule and the high national ranking gives the team plenty of fuel for a special season.
“I think they all tie in together,” she said. “The loss last year definitely hurts and drives us to work that much harder. Being No. 1 [in the preseason poll] is really going to push everybody as well because the teams we’re going up against are really talented. We have to show we deserve to be there and that we can live up to the expectation and get through that really tough schedule. So there’s really not any one thing that motivates us — they all do.”
It has been rare to find a team in a given season that was far and away the best in the demanding IAAM A Conference and then able to follow through with a championship season. In 2004, John Carroll, led by All-Metro standouts Ashley Myers and Jamie Zimmerman, had a dominating team that fulfilled all expectations to finish with a 21-0 season.
On paper, the 2013 McDonogh roster has a similar makeup to that Patriots squad.
The offense is powerful and creative, with a number of scoring options. Sophomore forward Bridgette Andrzejewski and Bialczak both earned All-Metro first-team honors last season and senior catalyst Casey Martinez is healthy after an injury-filled junior season. Eagles senior Steff Holmes holds the defense together.
Canellakis returns nine starters and has been impressed with the healthy push coming from newcomers looking to break into the lineup this season.
Can any team in the IAAM A Conference keep up with the Eagles this year? Defending champion Spalding lost several players to graduation and welcomes a new coach (Ashly Kennedy), while the rest of the squads in the conference have different strengths and weaknesses.
John Carroll coach Gary Lynch, who guided the Patriots’ undefeated 2004 team, knows it won’t be easy.
“McDonogh looks to be heads and shoulders above everybody else, and I think they have the opportunity to do the same thing we did. It’s not easy, but they have the players in place,” he said. “You can’t cover 10 great field players — it’s tough to do — and every special team has that type of personnel.”
Lynch added that one of the challenges that comes with having a stacked lineup is keeping every player focused on the oneness of the team as opposed to wanting to stand out individually.
Martinez, who is cherishing her role as a captain for McDonogh this season, has been impressed with the togetherness of the team in the early training sessions.
After the roster was set in mid-August, the Eagles traveled to West Virginia for two days of bonding. They camped, swam, canoed, made special pregame T-shirts and competed in what they call “Wacky Olympics” with various relay races. Aside from one meeting to talk about team goals, there was little mention of soccer.
Martinez said the Eagles were excited to hear the news that they were ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll, but added that the end result is what really matters.
“Everyone is super pumped for the season...,” Martinez said. “We not only have a lot of good players, but we have a lot of players that mesh really well together. We’re just all ready to play together as one unit, and that’s what makes it special. It’s not about all the talent, but how we all want to work together to make it a great year.”