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Girls Soccer Player of the Year: Spalding's Roberts at center of title run

bburden@capgaznews.com

Postseason accolades were the furthest thing from Emily Roberts' mind going into her senior year at Archbishop Spalding. She wanted one thing that had eluded her and her teammates the previous three years --- an IAAM A Conference championship.

Fortunately for Roberts, the Capital Gazette Communications Girls Soccer Player of the Year, the Cavaliers earned the first one as a team, and she earned the second one as the most dominant center back in the area.

Roberts, a four-year starter, played a vital role in a stingy defense that posted eight shutouts. Archbishop Spalding went 12-2-3 and defeated playoff nemesis Notre Dame Prep in penalty kicks for the school's first championship in coach Ashly Kennedy's four-year tenure, and fifth overall. Kennedy, the Baltimore metro area's player of the year for a championship-winning St. Mary's squad in 2002, knows the value of a reliable stalwart in the back.

"I needed a center back that was poised and composed in the back, and she had both right away as a freshman," Kennedy said. "She was able to understand the game and play smart, and she grabbed that position and held on to it."

Roberts, already a two-time All-Conference selection, as well as an All-State defender as a junior, was a calming presence on a team that featured just six seniors and was coming off its second straight playoff semifinal to the Blazers via PKs.

"This team had a lot of confidence going into the season, but we also needed to make sure we did not look ahead," Roberts said. "For me, positivity on the field is a big thing. I am always working to get the back line up, getting everyone forward, and trying to get a goal."

The Cavaliers started the season strong, knocking off Good Counsel and defeating Class 4A state semifinalist South River, Class 4A East Region finalist Arundel, and three-time defending IAAM A Conference champion McDonogh while going 5-1-1 in its first seven games.

Roberts is simply a powerful presence in the back. Call her a sweeper, call her a stopper, but opposing forwards were miserable when they reached Archbishop Spalding's defensive third, with the formidable defender was in their path. The Cavaliers surrendered six goals this season in two halves that Roberts was not on the field, roughly half what they conceded all season.

"She provides leadership and maturity, and her decisions, in regards to the technical side of the game, gave me a lot of flexibility," Kennedy said.

A stickler for a four-back formation, Roberts actually allowed Kennedy to move to a three-back formation midway through the 2015 campaign, and she stuck with it this year.

"We were struggling to score at the time, and I knew I needed to get more players forward, yet stay reliable in the back," Kennedy said. "Emily's presence allowed me to do that."

The Cavaliers suffered a loss to McDonogh and two ties in the back half of their schedule, but entered the playoffs as the top seed, earning a home date against John Carroll. In the first half, Roberts scored on a corner kick from longtime teammate Allie Brimmer midway through the first half. Teammates became accustomed to that type of score, as Roberts provided the aerial power in the box that successful teams utilize on set pieces.

"We have played together so long, and she knows where I am going to put that ball, and I know where she is going to be," said Allie Brimmer, who led the Cavaliers with nine goals. "I just look for the ball to be in the back of the net, and then I look for her to celebrate."

However, the biggest test of the season for Roberts, Brimmer and the rest of the Cavaliers began roughly after halftime. Less than two minutes into the second half against the Patriots, Roberts took on a John Carroll forward and went down. She suffered both a high and low ankle sprain that kept her out of the rest of the contest, reducing her to cheerleader and defensive coach. Brimmer scored on a penalty kick to secure the win, and Roberts hopped through the line.

"I just came out and talked to my teammates and pushed them on as much as I could," Roberts said. "I hated not being out there, but we badly wanted this as a team."

Those actions spoke to Kennedy's expectations of her team, especially her senior leaders. Brimmer and Roberts were the only two seniors on the team who made varsity as freshmen in Kennedy's first year.

"It was a huge deal for Ashly, and us, that we play for the team and not just ourselves. We just needed to play as a team," said Brimmer, a University of Maryland commit. "Every game, it is not about who scores, just the team scoring and the team winning."

As the championship game against NDP approached, and despite her best efforts, it became apparent that Roberts could not take the field. That forced Kennedy to employ four in the back — Taylor Washington, Abby Jeanneault, Natalie Holmes and Abby Hanks, to start. Right before the game began, Roberts provided all the boost she could.

"For my back line, when they went on the field, I went out with them and said what I would normally say if I was playing," Roberts said. "I told them that I believed in them and just provided that energy."

Roberts acted as sort of another assistant on the sideline for Kennedy, encouraging her teammates through 100 grueling minutes of scoreless play. When Kathryn Keaton converted the winning penalty kick, and the Cavaliers had finally solved NDP goalkeeper Ashley Gabor, Roberts hopped on fellow senior Maria Kiskis' back and headed to the pile-up.

"I told Maria to get ready, and when it happened, and the student section came out, it was great," Roberts said. "Our motto this year was 'Stop wishing for it and start working for it.' The potential accolades did not mean anything to me. I just wanted that championship."

The end of the run at Archbishop Spalding also means a near-end for Brimmer and Roberts' on-field relationship. The two have played together since they were 6, and will again play club ball for ASA Azzurri, before Brimmer departs for College Park, and Roberts heads to Old Dominion.

"She knows how to talk to me best; I know her voice anywhere on the field," Roberts said.

Brimmer agreed.

"Being the center back and the center mid, we were always connecting," Brimmer said. "We have this chemistry that no one can top. She knows where I usually go, and I know where she usually runs. I have 100 percent confidence in her, and she was the backbone of our back line. Not having her on the back line is going to be such a weird feeling, but we will talk to each other once a week about games and practice. "We know how to push and how much to encourage each other."

Along with sophomores Dani Etienne and Abby Hanks, Roberts and Brimmer again earned All-Conference nods. All-State and potentially All-American recognition could be on the way as well. It wasn't Roberts' focus, but she has earned the accolades she was not seeking.

Kennedy spoke after the championship game about how a program is not built over night, and although she has a talented program in place, losing Roberts, as well as Brimmer and the rest of the senior class, will sting. However, Kennedy is excited about Roberts' future at the next level.

"She did things for me that I did not see coming, and this was a pretty special senior class," Kennedy said. "She is going to kill it at ODU. This is her journey to continue to grow, to step in and own it there."

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