When Centennial boys soccer coach Jim Zehe first arrived at the Ellicott City school as a student teacher in 1995, the program under then-coach Bill Stara was one of the tops in the state.
That year, the Eagles won their seventh state crown and fourth in five years. Now, in Zehe's ninth year as coach, he has the kind of team that resembles those powerhouse squads of the past.
The No. 8 Eagles are 10-0 so far this season with a deep and experienced roster that has shown incredible chemistry.
He doesn't hesitate to use as many as 20 players in a given game and he's watched 15 players score at least one goal this year.
Playing in the deepest county in the state, the Eagles have outscored their opponents by an impressive 32-3 margin.
The Eagles are starting their toughest stretch of the season Friday when they host No. 12 Oakland Mills. Next week, they travel to No. 14 River Hill on Tuesday before a showdown against No. 3 Marriotts Ridge, which also is undefeated and three-time defending Class 2A state champions.
The Eagles compete in 3A and some of their toughest competition in a bid to capture the program's eighth state crown will come from their own backyard with fellow Howard County foes River Hill, Mount Hebron and Reservoir all competing in the East region.
What has stood out in the team's success so far this season?
I would say it’s the team’s depth and experience. There are four players on the team that made varsity as freshmen, so not only does that make them battle tested, but there’s enough guys out here that understand my expectations and my coaching style and that means we have essentially have a handful of coaches on the field. In terms of depth, I don’t think I’ve ever had anything close to the depth we have on this year’s team. I looked in the scorebook and we have at least 15 players who have scored at least one goal.
What's it like competing in Howard County?
Regardless of records, you can never expect to have an easy match in Howard County. It’s kind of a tricky thing at this point in the season in that we’ve won a bunch of games, but then we look up and we see all those teams that if we want to go far in the state, we’ve got to line ourselves right back up against those teams again. So I’m happy when we finish a game against a 2A team because I know we’re done with them. We finish a game against a 3A team and I think 'Oh my gosh, now they have extra motivation if we come up against them in the playoffs.' It’s brutal. It certainly helps to have the kind of depth we do because you can’t look at the schedule and say that at a certain point I could rest a couple of guys. But if I can go 18-20 players deep in any given game, I’m not going to be able to sit my top players for a full game, but there’s others who can take some of the minutes. We have not had a lot of non-competitive minutes this season even though we’ve won a lot of games so far.
What has been one constant in regards to your coaching philosophy?
I’m more of a defensive-oriented coach, so when I come into the season I have a pretty definite idea what I want to do defensively. From there, I like to evaluate what the offensive strengths seem to be and decide what we want to do offensively. So build from the back is the simplest way of putting it and then assess the players well enough to figure out who’s going to provide the offense and what combinations will work.
Standout senior midfielder Peter Vorel decided to play his last year of high school instead of playing with his academy team, how important was that?
It’s huge in a couple ways. I don’t want to sell anybody else on the team short because we still would have been competitive. But with Peter, the first day he showed up as a ninth grader he stepped right onto the field as one of our starting center backs and he’s the only sophomore captain I’ve ever coached, so the consistency he brings is huge. And Peter as a leader is about as great a kid as you can imagine. He’s not that vocal, but his approach is 100 percent and it’s 100 percent consistent. To have your leaders set the tone and not to be outworked at practice before we even talk about what he does as a player, his contributions in that regard are gigantic. In terms of his play on the field, Peter played as a center back his first two years and then last year he started moving up into the midfield. Now, he’s our main holding midfielder and his ability to not just cover some part of the field in front of our backs, but essentially to be able to be a screen all the way across the field with his work rate is pretty amazing. It just means a lot to the rest of the players that Peter would make that decision, that he would decide that this is what was most important to him and this is where he wanted to spend his time. That just makes everybody feel better about what we’re doing here knowing that a player that has an option to play academy decided he wanted to come back and finish his last year of high school. Bottom line is I can’t say enough about him.
What is the biggest surprise in the team's 10-0 start?
I guess it's the fact that we’ve had so many games where scoring goals wasn't a problem. For the last few years, we’ve had teams that were very strong defensively. But you kind of expect a team that gets to this point with an unblemished record must have someone that has 10 or 12 goals so that when it’s not working out, we just find that guy and he scores for us. So the fact that we have made it to 10-0 and don’t have a player that has more than five goals is amazing. And then at the other end, the fact we’ve only given up three goals is as well. I knew we were going to be strong defensively, but I think at this point we’ve scored 32 and only allowed three, so to have that kind of spread is pretty surprising.