Watching a Century girls soccer practice, one would notice some changes and some program staples from coach Chris Little’s defending Carroll County and Class 2A state champions.
Gone are key starters from the championship run, headlined by last season’s county Player of the Year, goalkeeper Mia Graff are gone, and members of the defensive line in front of her that didn’t allow a goal during last season’s playoffs.
Now, Little is flanked by a revamped defense, more experienced leaders and, of course, the team’s poster filled with all of the girls’ goals for the year.
“They have individual and team goals on the poster,” Little said. “Every week in the captains meetings, they measure and want to know how they’re progressing toward these goals. We have a very mature and motivated group.”
On that poster in bright pink marker reads, “County champs.” With Tuesday night’s 4-1 win over South Carroll, the Knights sent a message to the rest of the county — 2023 was never slated to be a rebuild, but rather a reload as they look to top the county, defend their state title and challenge some of the state’s top private schools.
“Our energy was just very different,” Megan Rusk said. “We all realize that if we want to be the best, it really started with that game.”
Rusk has been one of the players Little has praised for taking on a larger role for the Knights (3-1-1), describing her as the anchor of the defense.
A member of last year’s team, Rusk has done a great job stepping up and improving not just as a leader, but as a communicator.
“This year, I really stepped up with leadership and taking that centerback position,” she said. “I’ve been able to get along really well with our midfield and even our offense, been kind of helping the team get connected with each other on and off the field.”
Goalkeeper Audrey Peterson is another player excelling in an increased role, taking on the position Graff mastered last season. Peterson’s addition to the poster of goals was to earn at least six shutouts.
Already with two this season, she unselfishly noted that while a goalie may get the most credit for the feat, it’s really a team goal for the entire defense.
“It’s really about the team working together to win the game and hold the other team to zero,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the standards we have at Century and playing to those standards.”
Little is also joined by some returners from last year’s state title team that have grown within themselves to play an even bigger part of this year’s title defense. Little has empowered his girls, as many have found their voice during the offseason and a tough nonconference schedule to arm himself with a group of leaders that can overcome potential rough patches that may occur throughout a grueling season.
“As a sophomore, I wasn’t really trying to be a leader,” forward Bella Coccio said. “Now as a junior, I feel it might be easier for me to step up for the team and be with the rest of the captains.”
Little will heavily lean on captains like Coccio on Friday when the Knights take on No. 9 Notre Dame Prep. After getting the county title defense off to a great start, the girls look to focus on another goal on the team’s poster.
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“They want to beat one of these private schools,” Little said. “They want to put themselves on the map.”
Narrowly missing out on being ranked in top 15 of the latest Baltimore Sun girls soccer poll, the team knows the opportunity a game this big presents.
“I’m super excited,” Peterson said. “We really just have nothing to lose against these teams. We have the chance to play them and hopefully beat them. It’s a higher level and I’m just really excited to see how we do.”
With the Knights primed for another county title run after the South Carroll win, Little and his captains know that it all means nothing at the end of the day if the team’s No. 1 goal on the poster isn’t met: Have fun.
“A lot of this can be stressful,” senior captain Harli Hamlett said. “We want to have fun, that’s a really big thing for us. If we’re not having fun, we’re not playing well.”
With the team slowly but surely crossing goals of the list in large part due to great play from the newest group of key contributors, Little and the Knights appear ready for whatever challenge is thrown their way this season.
“It’s been a good start to the season,” Little said. “What I keep telling the girls is that it doesn’t matter how good we are now, we’ll be at our best by the end of the season and ready to make another run.”