Rivalries fuel competitive Howard County boys soccer title chase

River Hill, Mt. Hebron boys soccer teams among preseason favorites in what figures to be tight county race

There are no tricks, no gimmicks and certainly no surprises. At this point, having squared off in regional final games decided by penalty kicks each of the last two years, River Hill and Mt. Hebron arguably know one another better than any two programs in the area.

It's a rivalry, however, that they seem to relish.

Both the Hawks and the Vikings have championship aspirations this fall and know who they likely will have to go through to get there.

“With Mt. Hebron, you know exactly what you are going to get … they are incredibly hard workers and they battle the entire game. It’s almost a different mindset when you play them,” said River Hill coach Matt Shagogue. “I’m happy that this year we get to play them somewhat early in the season, which helps us avoid the potential of playing them within a couple weeks.

“It will be good for us to see early on exactly how far along we are. We’ve been fortunate enough to have some recent success against those guys, but nothing’s been easy.”

For as competitive as the match-ups between the Hawks and Vikings have been over the last four years — five of the six meetings have either ended in a tie or been decided by a single goal — the series has actually been rather lopsided during that time span. No member of River Hill’s current roster has ever lost a game to Mt. Hebron.

In fact, the Vikings haven’t beaten the Hawks since the 2009 playoffs. And it’s that recent track record that has this Mt. Hebron group extra hungry.

“Everyone is extremely motivated … you can tell everyone has come back out stronger and working harder after the way things ended the last two years,” said Mt. Hebron junior Johnny Linsenmeyer, who was one of six Vikings to register 18 points or more a season ago. “River Hill is a really good team and they’ve proven that, but we also know we can play them tough and we are capable of beating them. We’ve been talking since the end of last season that our goal is to win states and to do that we know that will probably mean getting past them at some point in the playoffs, likely the region finals.”

River Hill and Mt. Hebron both return at least six starters from a year ago, including three all-county players apiece.

The Hawks, which rolled their way to an 18-0-1 record and the program’s first state title since 2007, have reigning Howard County Player of the Year Mike Heitzmann back in the fold to go along with all-county stars Tomas Potts and Luke Turney. The Vikings counter with bringing back last year’s leading scorer in the county — senior Atticus Cooke (13 goals, nine assists in 2014) — and the all-county midfield tandem of Linsenmeyer and Pat Palin.

But, while the general consensus among area coaches is that the favorites heading into the year are River Hill and Mt. Hebron, getting to the top will be no easy task.

Last year, there were 10 teams that finished with four or more county victories. Five of those teams were deadlocked with five league wins apiece.

As a testament to that depth, there were three regional champions from the county — Howard (4A North), River Hill (3A East) and Oakland Mills (2A South). It’s in that vein that county coaches — even the new ones — have made a point of stressing consistency from the very first day.

“We’ve always told our team, every school in this county is challenging,” said first-year Atholton head coach Mike Bouman, who takes over for Roch DeFrances. “Anything can happen on any given day. I’m telling my boys not to overlook anyone.”

Bouman knows first hand the rigors of Howard County play. He was a member of the Atholton varsity squad from 2002-2005, winning a state championship with the team as a junior in 2004.

And he’s not the only new public school coach with a history in the area. Joseph Osborne, after spending the last half-decade as the school’s junior varsity boys soccer coach, is stepping into the head varsity position at Glenelg to replace Andrew Shearer. Osborne has also served as a JV boys basketball coach for multiple years at Glenelg.

Wendell Thomas, who takes over at Reservoir for Josh Sullivan, has one of the richest coaching histories in the county.

Thomas, who spent last year as a volunteer assistant for the girls soccer team at Reservoir in the fall, the boys indoor track coach at Atholton in the winter and then the JV boys lacrosse coach at Atholton in the spring, says he feels like his coaching career has come full circle in a way.

“I started Atholton’s program 37 years ago and when I left, giving up the boys varsity soccer position 13 years later, I turned it over to Reg Hahn,” Thomas said. “Now, I know he’s been gone for a season, but I’m coming into a program here at Reservoir that Reg had been leading for several years. It’s just a little funny how that has worked out.”

Thomas inherits a Gators’ program that, like River Hill and Mt. Hebron, has produced winning seasons each of the last four years. The team has only two returning starters from last year’s senior-laden squad that went 12-3 overall, but Thomas likes the potential of this group even though they may lack experience.

“These guys are very talented and honestly, many of them have been waiting in the wings to get a shot to prove themselves. Now they have their chance,” Thomas said.

On paper, deciphering which teams behind the top two will separate themselves as top half teams is no easy task. There are all-county players returning at nine of the county’s 12 public schools, creating the kind of leadership needed to guide successful campaigns.

Even teams that haven’t had recent success seem poised for breakthroughs. Long Reach, for example, hasn’t had a winning season since 2007. With three proven scorers up top — Joshua Fawole, Jack Toohey and Quentin Valiente — history could be thrown out the window, however.

“I thought last year we would have had a little more success and, that said, we still did very well last year. We just never figured out how to string wins together,” Long Reach John Horner said. “But if it didn’t happen last year, it better happen this year because our star players are now seniors. They are fully embracing their roles and I really think this is the year that we finally break through.”

Even Hammond and Marriotts Ridge, which were the lone two county teams to not win four times in league play in 2014, have the pieces to make a significant jump.

“This year, I think that nine of our starters are going to be seniors, so it’s going to be a big year for us as we look to turn things around,” said Hammond senior captain Darren Ketchum. “We have more of a camaraderie that we haven’t had in past years.”

For the area’s private schools, both of which compete in the MIAA C Conference, things have been trending in a positive direction the last few seasons. Glenelg Country has taken especially positive strides in the two years since Hal Kenny took over.

The Dragons went from finishing winless in 2012, to 5-7-2 in 2013 and then 8-5-0 last season. Now, with the program continuing to build, opponents are starting to look at Glenelg Country as a title contender.

New Chapelgate coach Tim Ryerson, who takes over for long-time coach Jason Bennett, is going as far as to say Glenelg Country “should win the league going away with the talent they have.”

Kenny says before going that far, he’s aiming first simply for a conference semifinals berth. “My goals are probably a little more humble than the rest of the guys, but my main focus is that we keep going in the same positive direction we have been,” he said. “We have a nice little bunch of kids and I’m delighted with the growth of the program each year since I’ve been here.”

The first official play day for the public schools is Sept. 4, with several teams participating in opening weekend tournaments around the state. It’s not until the following week that county play kicks off.

Here’s a look at each of the Howard County teams heading into the year (For expanded capsules, visit us online at howardcountytimes.com).

*2014 First-team all-county; #2014 Second-team all-county

Atholton

Coach: Mike Bouman

2014 record: 5-5-1 county, 7-7-1 overall

Top players: Seniors Noah Bathras* (G), Leandro Conti (MF), Nathan Kim (MF), Dylan Royalty* (F) and Mike Smith (D); sophomores Jake Allen (MF) and Jackson Hughes (D).

What you need to know: Bouman takes over the coaching duties and will be coaching alongside his dad, Jeff, this fall. As a player for the Raiders, Bouman not only helped the team to a state title in 2004, but also was the team’s fourth leading scorer as a senior in 2005.

This Raiders’ team he will be leading certainly has the talent to make some noise this fall. There are seven returning starters, five of which are impact seniors. Bathras, a leader in goal, and Royalty were first-team all-county selections a year ago. Royalty is coming off posting 22 points (8 goals, 6 assists) as a junior to finish inside the top 10 in the county in scoring. With Kim and Conti providing support behind him, Bouman expects the team to have some offensive punch. He also said to keep on eye on sophomore Tejas Khanna (injured in 2014) and senior Jordan Armstead (transfer from Oakland Mills) in the midfield.

Overall, Bouman likes the depth of his group and says his challenge will be to simply find the right mix. “I feel if we can properly balance everyone’s experience and personalities, and create a style of play that is unique to this group, we’ll be able to maximize potential,” he said.

Centennial

Coach: Jim Zehe

2014 record: 5-6, 8-8

Top players: Seniors Tom Brown (D), EJ Fowler (G), Savya Konkalmatt (MF), Michael Merkey (MF), Bobby Nasafi (D) and Noah Taylor (F); juniors Shawn Atmar (MF), Justin Breedlove (MF) and Ammar Narmouq (F).

What you need to know: The Eagles have posted a .500 overall record or better the last four years, making the program a perennial contender. The pieces are in place to continue that trend and potentially make a move up into the top third of the standings.

Merkey, who was an all-county selection last year, and Nasafi have been significant contributors on varsity since they were sophomores and are captains this fall alongside Fowler. Aside from talent on the soccer field, Merkey and Fowler also bring the intangibles that go along with being members of Centennial’s boys basketball team that won a state title last winter. That winning mentality, something that Tom Brown also brings after serving as an all-county basketball player, is something coach Jim Zehe is hoping rubs off.

Overall there are just four starters returning, but the addition of guys like Brown, Taylor and Atmar — all who weren’t on the field for Centennial last year for various reasons — will go a long way.

Centennial’s midfield group, like most years, is its backbone and the key to success will likely be how much production the team gets from the offense. Narmouq, who came midway through last year and scored eight goals as a sophomore, should be a leader in that department.

Glenelg

Coach: Scott Osborne

2014 record: 4-7, 4-9

Top players: Seniors Dylan DuBeau (D), Alex Frith (F), Andrew Heisig (MF) and Amanuel Rizk (MF); junior Brady Barajas (MF).

What you need to know: Osborne may technically be new, but he has coached many of the players on this year’s varsity team as JV players. That familiarity should help smooth the transition. It also will help having a pair of strong leaders like DuBeau and Heisig (second-team all-county in 2014).

“They have taken on the leadership role throughout the summer in trying to get their teammates mentally and physically prepared for the season,” Osborne said. “They have a willingness to push themselves and others for the greater good of the team.”

There may be only just six starters overall are back, but there is a fairly large contingent of guys with varsity experience. Depth in the midfield is especially strong according to Osborne.

Glenelg was under .500 last fall, but lost five of its nine games by a single goal so the potential is there for a turnaround if the team can turn the tide in a few of those tight contests.

Hammond

Coach: Brett Cutler

2014 record: 2-9, 2-12

Top players: Seniors Josh Brewer (MF), Darren Ketchum (MF), Josh Lee (D) and Tony Rollin (D); sophomores Bryce Kholheim (G) and Anderson Mejia Maroquin (F).

What you need to know: The Golden Bears are looking for a turnaround campaign after several seasons in the bottom third of the standings and will be counting heavily on its senior group to lead what is still a fairly young team. There are three sophomore returning starters, along with anywhere from three to five freshmen expected to see major time.

“How quickly the younger players develop an understanding for the pace and demands of the game and gel with their older teammates will be a huge determining factor (in our success)” coach Brett Cutler said.

Ketchum, a four-year varsity starter, will be at the top of the list of players being counted on to guide the way. Cutler says Ketchum, Lee, Rollin and Brewer are all seniors heavily respected by their teammates.

In terms of the young faces, Kholheim’s presence at goalie and Mejia Maroquin’s ability up top present great hope for this year and the future. Mejia Maroquin was the Golden Bears’ top scorer in 2014 with four goals.

Howard

Coach: Nils Schroder

2014 record: 5-5-1, 9-6-1

Top players: Seniors Brett Blackburn (MF), James Corley (D), Trevor Hilterbrick (MF), Drew Lillis (MF), Sean Lillis (MF) and Sean Pino (MF); junior Brendan Hartlove (G); sophomore Andrei Shiller (MF).

What you need to know: Last fall was a huge breakthrough year for the Lions and, although an extremely talented senior class has graduated, the byproduct of that success is a positive mentality switch going forward. “We only have a few returning starters from last year, although many of our players got significant playing time last year,” coach Nils Schroder said.

There is once again going to be a significant amount of senior leadership on the team, headlined by the midfield group of Blackburn, Pino and Hilterbrick. But Schroder is impressed with this team’s balance, noting the versatile brother tandem of Drew and Sean Lillis to go along with strength in the back coming from Corley on defense and Hartlove in goal.

While it may take a little time for this collection of guys to build chemistry together, Schroder said there is potential for another special year. “We expect to be a much stronger team in October from where we are starting,” he said.

Long Reach

Coach: John Horner

2014 record: 4-7, 6-9

Top players: Seniors Kofi Agyemang (F), David Ceasar (MF), Joshua Fawole (MF), Eddie Sanchez (F) and Quentin Valiente (MF); junior Jack Toohey (F); sophomore Justin Mule (D).

What you need to know: The expectations haven’t been this high going into a season for the Lightning in almost a decade. There is experience in key positions all over the field, including all-county players Fawole and Valiente anchoring the midfield unit. Both those guys, along with Toohey, registered nine or more points a season ago.

“Our ability to stay healthy and to control the middle of the field (will determine our success),” coach John Horner said. “We will be looking to limit the opportunities other teams get, while having a steady offensive presence. Josh and Quentin’s play will be a large part of that for us.”

Overall there are 10 returning players and eight saw significant time in 2014. There are also some younger guys joining the team that will be key contributors. Mule will be a key on defense after missing last season with an injury, while Marcus Valiente and Jonathan Fawole — the siblings of the team’s senior captains — have great potential as well.

Long Reach showed what it is capable of when it is clicking on all cylinders by knocking off Reservoir last season. The hope is to now establish some consistency.

Marriotts Ridge

Coach: Kevin Flynn

2014 record: 0-11, 1-15

Top players: Seniors Nathan Keeney (MF), TJ McIntyre (MF), and Noah Wartzack (D); juniors Robert Davis (MF) and Simon Klementsen (F); sophomore Chase Crable (MF).

What you need to know: It was a tough fall from the top for the Mustangs last year, as the team struggled to adjust to the departure of several all-county players from 2013. The record from last fall is slightly misleading, as an ineligible player cost the team a couple wins and ties, but overall there is plenty of room to improve.

The good news is, with a large portion of last year’s group returning and several players who took last year off back as well, there is plenty of optimism this preseason.

In terms of leadership, everything starts with McIntyre. The senior will play all over the field and “is a strong vocal leader with a good work ethic,” according to coach Kevin Flynn.

The midfield looks to be the team’s area of strength as Davis and Klementsen have each been on varsity for three years. Klementsen showed great promise last year with seven goals and three assists. Getting Keeney and Crable back into the program after playing Academy last year will be huge additions.

Flynn is hoping that the team can quickly erase last year’s negative memories. “We have to rebound psychologically from last year’s disastrous season and redevelop a winning attitude,” he said.

Mt. Hebron

Coach: Mike Linsenmeyer

2014 record: 8-1-2, 13-2-2

Top players: Seniors Atticus Cooke (F), Cameron Heath (D), Daniel Obeng (D), Lucas Oh (MF) and Pat Palin (MF); juniors Johnny Linsenmeyer (MF), Jacob Parrot (D) and Michael Yacynych (MF).

What you need to know: The Vikings were penalty kicks away from the state semis each of the last two years and certainly have the talent to finally get over that hump this season. The offense, which boasted 10 guys a season ago that registered at least three goals apiece, is once again daunting on paper.

Cooke is the leader of the group up top, as he led Howard County’s public schools with 35 points (13 goals, 9 assists) as a junior. He, especially when working with Linsenmeyer and Palin, is capable of putting on a show.

Overall, there are seven returning starters and they are sprinkled in all areas of the field. Obeng, Parrot and Heath will be counted on defensively to help break in a new face behind them in goal. Oh and Yacynych are veteran midfielders.

Coach Mike Linsenmeyer said the key to the season will simply be staying in the moment. “Figuring out how to play hard and smart on a consistent basis will help us be successful,” he said.

Oakland Mills

Coach: Don Shea

2014 record: 5-5-1, 9-7-1

Top players: Seniors Michael Ahumada (F), Khaaliq Canada (MF), Ken Johnson (D) and Hymad N’Diaye (F).

What you need to know: The Scorpions have proven over the last few years how the strength of a deep program can go a long way. By establishing a wealth of talent up and down its varsity roster, along with creating a successful feeder JV program, Oakland Mills has now made trips to the state semifinals in each of the last two years.

N’Diaye up top gives the team one of the most dynamic and talented scorers in the area. He posted a total of 28 points (10 goals, 8 assists) as a junior. Ahumada provides a great set-up man as well, evidenced by his seven assists a year ago.

The midfield took a little bit of a hit when all-county performer Javier Avetrani did not return for this season. But in his place, a deep unit headlined by Canada should be capable of picking up the slack.

With games against each of last year’s top three teams — Reservoir, Mt. Hebron and River Hill — among its first five county contests, the Scorpions will be tested right away.

Reservoir

Coach: Wendell Thomas

2014 record: 9-2, 12-3

Top players: Seniors Rapheal Akuffo (F), Cristian Alfaro (MF), Justin Barnes (MF), Andre Dachao (G) and Daniel Morales (D); junior Dutch Schulden (MF).

What you need to know: The Gators were hit as hard as anyone by graduation, but the stable is far from empty. Even with only two full-time returning starters — Alfaro and Dachao — new coach Wendell Thomas has an athletic and versatile group that features several guys who have been in the program and learned from last year’s stars.

“The lack of experience is inspirational for our team because they all realize this is their opportunity to fill the void left by many outstanding seniors,” Thomas said.

The midfield unit is deep with Alfaro and Schulden anchoring the unit to go along with Barnes providing support as a transfer in from Paint Branch. Dachao provides experience in goal, Morales will anchor the defense, while Akuffo has proven he can play anywhere on the field.

Thomas says having assistant coach Jason Hall, who has been with the team for several years, is a big key to what has been a seamless transition for him into the program so far.

River Hill

Coach: Matt Shagogue

2014 record: 10-0-1, 18-0-1

Top players: Seniors Chris Behrman (MF), Mike Heitzmann (MF), Tomas Potts (G), Gabriel Quintero (MF), Luke Turney (MF) and Logan Walker (MF); junior Gianni Gupta (F).

What you need to know: The Hawks went on a magical run last season all the way to the program’s first state championship since 2007. Along the way the team took advantage of clutch offense and lockdown defense, headlined by Player of the Year Mike Heitzmann and first-team all-county goalie Tomas Potts. Both guys are back and poised to help the team repeat, along with another all-county guy in Turney. Overall there are six returning starters.

Heitzmann has been getting a lot of preseason buzz, being list on two preseason All-American watch lists.

The biggest question marks are on the defensive end, as replacing all-county defenders Jay Bucci and Ben Peters won’t be easy. But having the four-year starter in goal in the form of Potts, to go along with some intriguing young guys, has coach Shagogue excited about the potential.

“I feel pretty good about where we are. Defensively we look pretty solid and I know that was a little bit of a concern coming into the year,” he said. “We’ve made significant growth in a short period of time.”

Wilde Lake

Coach: Jon Robinson

2014 record: 5-4-2, 7-6-2

Top players: Seniors Philip Bonsu (F), Michael Fontana (D), Chris Johnson (MF) and Patrick Riley (G); juniors Richard Awauh (D) and Alex Michel (F); sophomore Greg Obeng (F).

What you need to know: After a one-win season two years ago, the Wildecats made a huge jump last year. Now coach Jon Robinson says his group is ready to aim for even bigger things. “Building on the progress made last year, we hope to challenge the upper tier of the county,” he said.

The large number of returning seniors puts Wilde Lake in great position to reach those high expectations. Bonsu, who finished with 15 points last year, is a returning first-team all-county player and will combine with Michel and Obeng to lead the offense.

On the other end, Riley is an all-county goalie that has started for four years. Fontana in front of him is a three-year starter in his own right and will get some defensive help from the addition of Awauh to the squad. Johnson anchors the midfield.

Coach Robinson also says to keep an eye on senior Ben Lin and junior Luke Pascale.

Chapelgate

Coach: Tim Ryerson

2014 record: 4-4-2 MIAA C Conference; 4-5-2

Top players: Seniors Charlie Tibbels (MF) and Blake Van Wingerden (D); juniors Garrett Hunt (G) and Marc Little (F); sophomore Jah Dunbar (MF).

What you need to know: Ryerson is taking over as head coach, but he’s not new to the program or to the local soccer scene. He was an unofficial assistant coach last season for the Yellowjackets under coach Jason Bennett and he also serves as the Executive Director of the Ellicott City Soccer Club that started in the spring of 2014.

A state champion during his playing days at Oakland Mills, Ryerson is excited for this new chapter. “I am thrilled about the opportunity to build a competitive program in the MIAA with our partner Chapelgate Christian Academy,” he said.

The group Ryerson takes over is a fairly young one, having graduated 14 seniors from last fall. That leaves just four returning starters and Ryerson says youth will be a factor, although there should be no issues with fitness and effort. Dunbar, who is a sophomore that “could be one of the most technical players in our conference,” makes the midfield unit an area of strength.

Among the returning starters, Little is among the most important ones after making the all-conference squad as a sophomore. Ryerson says Tibbels is a leader by example, Van Wingerden is relentless on defense and Hunt has been impressive in early season action thus far.

Glenelg Country

Coach: Hal Kenny

2014 record: 7-3 MIAA C, 8-5

Top players: Seniors Reid Chaconas (D), Sam Smith (MF) and Eric Wootton (G); junior Nick Clemons (MF).

What you need to know: The Dragons have improved their record every year since Kenny took over the program, but it’s more than victories that has the third-year coach excited for the future. “We are building an entire program here. Last year was our first having a JV team and they had a phenomenal year,” he said. “Then this year, our numbers in terms of kids out between the two teams, is higher than ever. I’m also excited about the huge increase in the number of kids in our program now also playing club ball. Everything is moving in the right direction.”

There are seven starters returning and all seven have “had a successful spring season with their clubs,” according to Kenny. Chaconas and Wooten in particular earned second place in NCSL Division I with the Thunder Soccer Club’s U18/19 boys Galacticos program.

Wooten anchors the defense, boasting valuable experience in goal, and is coming off a junior campaign where he was named a conference all-star.

Kenny says the team’s strength is its midfield unit, which is more than capable of pushing up into the offensive attack. He also has been pleased so far with the potential of his junior class that includes Clemons, Trevor Ryerson, Camden Fisher, Riley Schmidt, Ned Menton, Ethan Mendez and Yanni Karabatis.

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