A trio of talented athletes at Catonsville High turned the 2020-21 athletic year into their chance to shine, playing two sports back-to-back from March until June. That earned James Azbill, Brian Ruppel and Josh Williams the honor of being the 2021 Catonsville/Arbutus Times Boys Athletes of the Year.
All three juniors played on the Catonsville High boys lacrosse team that won its first 10 games before losing in the Class 4A state championship game to Severna Park, 11-3.
Before playing that historical lacrosse season, they each played a shortened fall season.
Azbill and Williams played exceptional defense for the football team, and Ruppel was a standout goalie for the soccer squad.
Ruppel played varsity basketball as a freshman and sophomore, but winter sports were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When sports did resume, it was Williams who made the biggest impression on the football team as the 5-foot-8, 160-pound defensive back led the team in tackles.
“Josh is very smart and he knows how to take whatever play [defensive] coach [Jeff] Mueller is calling and whatever knowledge he has gained through his film study to put himself in the right position and to make tackles,” coach Jaren Maybin said. “He knows in order to get someone to stop running he needs to wrap up their legs and bring them down to the ground.”
Maybin marveled at Williams’ ability to constantly be in the pile, despite his lack of size.
“He’s a great form tackler and he utilizes his technique rather than the size,” Maybin said. “He’s very tough. He knows how to take on blocks and use his body position.”
Practice for the 2021 season began Aug. 11, and Maybin knows what Williams needs to focus on for his senior season.
“He needs to be able to show his coverage ability. We don’t play a whole lot of teams that will try to beat us in the air, when they do he needs to make sure he’s in the right spot,” Maybin said. “He needs to put that kind of stuff on film because he has aspirations of playing college football and I know a lot of college football recruiters want to see his ability to cover in space and in man.”
Azbill has committed to play Division I lacrosse at Towson University, but he knew getting on the football field would make him even tougher on the lacrosse field.
“He knows that his main sport is lacrosse, but he likes to work on his lacrosse abilities through football,” Maybin said. “He utilizes his toughness and he always puts himself in the right spot.”
The outside linebacker was one of top five tacklers and he also played on the kick return, punt return, kickoff and punt teams.
“He made it very clear he wanted to work on his footwork and his defensive abilities for our team,” Maybin said. “He is one of the leaders on defense. We relied heavily on Josh and James to be the vocal and the physical leaders on our team.”
Azbill was also a fixture in the weight room during summer workouts.
“He is a strong dude. He lifts a ton which has been huge for him,” Catonsville lacrosse coach KR Schultz said.
Owning the goal
Like Azbill, Ruppel will also play Division I lacrosse. He has committed to play goalie at the University of Maryland.
Catonsville soccer coach Brendan Kennedy is thrilled to have him back for one final season.
“He is just a hungry, motivated individual, one of the most determined to win, succeed, compete kids I’ve ever coached,” Kennedy said. “He is hands down the most athletic kid I’ve coached in 10 years, his ability, everything is fantastic.”
Ruppel’s intelligence and instincts make him even more dominant.
“He is just so smart in any sport that he plays, he’s right there and if he does make a mistake, which doesn’t happen often, he’s got a short term memory and he’s right back onto the next play,” Kennedy said. “His hands and his athleticism are great, he’s not a particularly tall guy especially for a goalkeeper, but his ability to react and get his hand on balls and control the box just makes him outstanding back there.”
One of his highlight games came in a 1-1 double-overtime tie against Hereford, and he drew praise from Hereford coach Adam Mizzell.
“Their goalkeeper was mistake-free all night, which was a problem for us,” Mizzell said
Leaders on the lacrosse field
Fans finally got to see goalie Ruppel and Azbill play exclusively at their natural lacrosse positions during their junior season, and the pair was outstanding.
There was no lacrosse season during their sophomore year; as a freshman, Ruppel played midfield and was the second-leading scorer (25 goals, six assists), while Azbill played long-stick midfield, short-stick midfield and close defense.
In 2021, Azbill was a long-stick close defender who came up big in the most important games.
Catonsville’s 7-6 victory over Towson, the Generals’ only defeat during the regular season, was one of those.
Azbill held Towson’s leading scorer Evan Jones (51 goals and 33 assists) to two goals and two assists.
“We played a great game, they just had two really good kids on that team that committed to Maryland [Ruppel] and Towson [Azbill],” said Jones, whose Generals lost in the Class 3A state championship game.
Ruppel had 11 saves, including several on point-blank shots, against Towson.
“That was a big time performance by a goalie,” Catonsville coach Schultz said.
Towson coach Rick Brocato also praised Ruppel’s effort in that game.
“I think it’s a different ballgame if that kid in the goal isn’t in the goal,” Brocato said. “He is something special. I coached him this summer at a Nike all-star game and we won the championship and he is terrific.”
Ruppel, Azbill, Jones and Hereford’s Austin Clarke were selected to the Maryland State Lacrosse Coaches Association All-State Public School First Team. They were the only Baltimore County players selected.
Ruppel and Azbill were also voted High School All-Americans by the Greater Baltimore Chapter of U.S. Lacrosse.
Both players were on the Highlight team this summer that played in the Under Armour All-America Lacrosse Game at Johns Hopkins’ Homewood Field.
Ruppel won the C. Markland Kelly award for 4A for public schools selected by Maryland State Lacrosse Coaches Association and selected media representatives.
“That’s the biggest award you can get for lacrosse as far as Maryland public high school lacrosse goes,” Schultz said.
What makes Ruppel stand out above others is his work ethic and determination.
“He’s super, super competitive and he’s pretty grounded,” Schultz said. “He comes to work every day and knows there was a lot of hype going into this season and he just works his tail off.”
Before the season, Ruppel, who had a save rate of nearly 70%, just wanted to make saves in competitive games on the Catonsville turf field, which the team calls “The C.”
“We need this year, we’ve got to play the best we can play and make up for that year we lost,” Ruppel said. “There is nothing like playing on ‘The C’. We grew up watching these games and we grew up dreaming of these moments.”
Azbill had his moments on the Comets home turf and away from it, like he did at Towson, when he caused a turnover late in the game to preserve the one-goal lead.
Azbill stands out defensively because he has the total package of strength, agility and intelligence.
“He has great instincts, he has great speed and he is always thinking ahead,” Schultz said. “He’s getting to a point where it’s like having another coach on the field for that defense.”
Azbill led the Comets in ground balls, scored two goals and had six assists.
Friends since they were very young, the pair sensed they had a special team in workouts during the pandemic.
“I feel like we both just pushed each other the whole time through like quarantine and all that,” Azbill said. “We never stopped working, we played club through the summer, so we never really missed a beat.”
Eventually, more teammates joined the workouts and the chemistry helped develop a cohesive unit.
Williams, the football standout, developed into a key piece as one of the top defensive midfielders. He scored five goals and had 10 ground balls, gaining most of the attention streaking down the field on a clear.
“His job is stat-less, just like playing cornerback,” Schultz said, noting that Williams does his work with a quiet demeanor. “He just handles his business when the helmet straps on. He’s a little unassuming because he is not like one of the biggest kids in the world, but he will go against anyone. He doesn’t care, he will strap up against anybody.”
At the end of the Towson game, it was Williams who made an outlet pass to Ruppel for the clear after his final save.
“His job is like thankless, but, he’s so vital,” Schultz said.
Like Azbill and Ruppel, in more sports than one.