It was one of the most competitive seasons in Howard County field hockey history, ending in a three-way tie for county champion. Sports editor Brent Kennedy recaps the action from the season. (Jon Sham/Howard County Times video)
Jen Bleakney's field hockey résumé covers two full pages that are peppered with phrases like "elite," "gold medal," "player-to-watch," "MVP" and "champion."
Now a new phrase can be added.
The Atholton senior has been chosen as the Columbia Flier/Howard County Times Player of the Year.
Bleakney had a phenomenal year, scoring a county-best 31 goals and adding 16 assists as the Raiders won a share of their first county title since 1995. Westminster again proved to be a roadblock to Atholton's dream of winning a state championship, like the one they earned Bleakney's sophomore year.
"We thought we were going to go a very long way this year," Bleakney said. "But I can't say that it was a disappointing season for us. I am really proud of what we accomplished."
Bleakney started playing field hockey in recreational clinics when she was in fifth grade. Within two years, she was on the Spitfire, a local club team, and by the time she entered high school she was playing for the West Chester Eagles in Pennsylvania, one of the nation's premier club teams.
Either as a member of the WC Eagles or on one of the USA Field Hockey teams (the U-19 indoor national team is her latest), field hockey has taken her all across the United States, as well as to China and New Zealand.
Playing internationally "you learn so much skill and different aspects and mentalities of the game," Bleakney said. "Besides the amazing field hockey, you see the culture in different parts of the world."
Last summer's New Zealand trip was her favorite because it was laid back and the Eagles were able to do a lot of sightseeing.
Laid back isn't usually a phrase used to describe Bleakney.
"Jen has the great ability to stop the ball on a dime on a corner and (hit with a) quick release," Dyer said. "It's very scary."
Bleakney, the fifth player in county history to score 30+ goals in a season, says her greatest asset is her speed.
"A lot of coaches tell me I should just push the ball past a girl and run to get it."
Bleakney's speed became obvious her junior year when she started to take her participation on Atholton's indoor and outdoor track teams seriously. After two average years as a middle distance runner, Bleakney suddenly realized that with a little effort she could be good.
Last year, she won Class 3A outdoor state track titles in the 800 meters, 1,600 meters and the 4x800 relay. The effort earned her outdoor track Athlete of the Year honors.
"Jen is a great kid with the determination to move on to bigger and better things," Dyer said.
Will high school and college field hockey be stepping stones as she moves up the ladder to the United States Olympic team? Don't bet against it.
Bleakney has accepted Syracuse University's offer to play for their team. This year's Orange squad finished second in the NCAA national championships. While the team is only graduating three seniors, that does not deter Bleakney's desire to be an integral part of the squad.
"If you work hard then you are going to earn your place on the field," she said.
Bleakney has already earned her place in the Atholton record books. Her freshman statistics aren't available, but in her final three years with the Raiders, she scored 67 goals and had 43 assists, which likely makes her Atholton's all-time leading scorer.
Mia Astran, Glenelg senior. When its top returning scorer, Megan Taylor, suffered a season-ending injury, the whole dynamic of the Glenelg team changed. Astran, a right outside forward, saw her role immediately increase as the team needed to rely more on its outside players to get the ball up the field.
"We counted on Mia to take the ball to the baseline and dump it back inside," said Glenelg coach Ginger Kincaid.
Astran became the front-line leader who brought along the younger forwards.
Her strong centering pass added four assists to the five goals that she scored.
"I think Mia is just beginning to tap into how good she really is as a player," Kincaid said.
Maddie Courtney, Marriotts Ridge senior. On a team that technically had eight forwards, Courtney was a standout. She scored 10 goals and added 10 assists as the Mustangs won a piece of their first field hockey county title.
She was aggressive to the ball and had strong ball control.
With a career total of 29 goals and 17 assists, the three-year varsity starter leaves Marriotts Ridge as the second leading scorer in school history behind Jenna Kerr.
"Maddie is more than deserving of being all-county first team," said Marriotts Ridge coach Stacie Gado.
Tori Raulin, Atholton freshman. A great addition to the Atholton squad, Raulin, just a freshman, has the same skill set as teammate Jen Bleakney, the Player of the Year.
There's the hard drive, the reverse chip and the aerial, in addition to a shot that is like a rocket.
Raulin began the season as Atholton's cherry picker, but she moved to the wing position and gave the Raiders an outside scoring threat. She had 17 goals and 17 assists.
"If you look at Tori and Jen on the field doing drills you would think they are they same person," said coach Martie Dyer. "She's Jen's twin in every single way … and she's a phenomenal player."
Meaghan Quinn, Atholton junior. A natural athlete with a great eye for the goal, Quinn (11 goals, nine assists) gave the Raiders another scoring threat. Early in the season she moved from wing to cherry picker, a position switch that allowed Atholton to take advantage of her ability to go one-on-one with the defense.
"Because of the position she played and how she played it, Meaghan was the girl that everyone wanted to mark out," said Atholton coach Martie Dyer. "She's just a great player and if she played year round, she'd really be a force to be reckoned with."
Ally Unkenholz, Mt. Hebron, senior. A three-year varsity starter, Unkenholz was a versatile player. Sometimes she started on the left side of the field, but often she was moved to the right. She played wherever her team needed her.
She was Mt. Hebron's leading scorer with 18 golas and three assists.
"We struggled on attack and she didn't have a lot of help, but she worked really, really hard," said Mt. Hebron coach Jeannette Ireland. "Ally had such an outstanding year. The growth from her sophomore year to her senior year was tremendous."
Mt. Hebron's only county losses were to Atholton, Glenelg and Marriotts Ridge, the three teams that tied for the county title.
Mollie Belson, Atholton senior. Much of Atholton's offensive power — the Raiders scored 102 goals — came from the strength of its midfield. The Raiders' midfield transfers helped get the ball to their offensive end of the field.
"My team was my midfield," said coach Martie Dyer. "I can't say enough about it."
Belson's stick skills and game sense made her a team leader. One of Atholton's strokers, she converted every stroke that she took. On the season she recorded eight goals and had two assists.
"Mollie is better than any midfielder I've had," Dyer said.
Grace Olson, Glenelg sophomore. Olson has made tremendous strides in her second season on varsity. She has grown from a timid freshman substitute to a dynamic and versatile player. She has strong stick skills and good field instincts.
She was Glenelg's hitter on offensive corners, its flier on defensive corners and the team's No. 1 stroker.
Olson scored the winning stroke in the Atholton game and made two strokes, including the sudden-victory game winner, in Glenelg's sectional championship game against Marriotts Ridge.
"Grace is probably my top field player. For a little kid, she's strong and she does it all," said coach Ginger Kincaid.
Olson had eight goals and four assists.
Emily Purnell, Mt. Hebron senior. The Vikings' season had a rough start, more down than up, but throughout it all Purnell was the team's best and most consistent player.
She started at center midfield but moved to right midfield as Mt. Hebron's coaching staff tried to maximize the team's potential.
Purnell was on the Vikings' stroke team and part of both its offensive and defensive corner units. She recorded six goals and three assists.
"Overall, Emily was just a tremendous, tremendous player. I think very highly of her," said coach Jeannette Ireland.
Lexi Souder, Marriotts Ridge junior. Souder is only the second player in Marriotts Ridge field hockey history to have been on varsity since her freshman year. She was pulled up midway through her first season and has been a starter ever since.
"Lexi's the smartest player that I have out there," said coach Stacie Gado. "She can make any other player on the team look better by passing the ball and setting them up. She just makes smart decisions."
The Mustangs' strongest hitter is also humble and unselfish. "She doesn't have a lot of goals because she passes the ball off," Gado said.
Souder had three goals and five assists this fall.
Enya McGarry, Marriotts Ridge, senior. McGarry was the Mustangs' left back, their inserter for offensive corners and their trial for defensive corners. Her effort at the offensive end led to her scoring one goal and assisting 10 others. Defensively, she helped Marriotts Ridge post a county-leading 10 shutouts.
"Enya was able to keep the ball on her stick better than anybody else playing the left side," said coach Stacie Gado. "Her (ball control) stick skills compare with college level players."
Molly Milani, Glenelg senior. Milani literally played endline to endline. Although a center back, she was Glenelg's inserter on corners. Her stint on the offensive end of the field resulted in five goals and five assists.
"Molly was our field general. She made all the decisions," said coach Ginger Kincaid.
Milani, a three-year starter, was a smart, technically sound player. Her coach considers her the Gladiators' "most complete" player.
"Molly was the only player I had besides (fellow co-captain Meg Taylor) that was part of the state championship run (2010-12), and she kept the others hungry for it, that's for sure," said Kincaid. "She was bound and determined that this year's team would not be the one that faltered."
With Milani's leadership, Glenelg advanced to its sixth consecutive state final four. The Gladiators made a strong effort, but saw their season end, 1-0, in the state semifinals.
Hannah Schied, Mt. Hebron senior. Schied was another defender who also made an impact on the offensive end of the field when she came up for corner plays. With a tremendous drive, she finished the year with eight goals and 12 assists.
While clearly a scoring threat, her forté was defense.
"Hannah was our shutdown defender," said coach Jeannette Ireland. "Every time I thought another team was breaking away from us, there came Hannah with a really solid tackle. She's had a great year."
Noelle Frost, Glenelg junior. Glenelg's traditionally high-scoring offense suffered a blow three games into the season when the Gladiators lost their scoring spark to injury.
"We went from being a pretty good offensive team to suddenly everything relied on how well we stacked it up from the backfield," said coach Ginger Kincaid.
As it turned out, in Frost, a member of USA Field Hockey's U-17 national squad, Glenelg had an ace in the goal.
"Noe plays everywhere. She's trained by coaches all over the country," Kincaid said.
Frost's national training takes place on artificial turf; much of her high school play is on Bermuda grass. For a goalkeeper, each surface has a different playing style.
"I think Noe made a lot of adjustments this season to do what we needed her to do," Kincaid said.
On the year, Frost stopped nearly 86 percent of the shots she faced. Glenelg's victory over Atholton and its second Marriotts Ridge game were determined by strokes and Frost came up huge each time.