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Howard County boys soccer preparing for ever-changing landscape ahead of unprecedented fall season

It would have been hard to blame Wilde Lake head coach Trevor Shea for thinking about what might have been.

Coming off a state championship in 2019, the Wildecats were slated to bring back over half their starters in an attempt to become Howard County’s first repeat winner at states since Marriotts Ridge won four straight times between 2009 and 2012.

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Like many things over the past year, however, those plans have been significantly altered by the coronavirus pandemic.

With the season shifting from being held this past fall to a now condensed spring campaign that begins on March 5, there will be no state playoffs and no chance at similar postseason glory for Wilde Lake or the rest of the teams in the county. And for Shea and the Wildecats, the shift in seasons has left holes that stretch far beyond just altering the hardware they are chasing — the make-up of the team on the field has been drastically different as well.

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Due to a number of different factors, ranging from injuries to opt outs to players changing sports, Shea said there have been as many as seven expected starters not on the field for the Wilde Lake program during the opening weeks of practices.

But for all the missing elements as this season approaches the first play date, Shea has been doing his best to focus on what he has instead of what he doesn’t.

“We can’t get hung up on the things about this season that aren’t what we expected them to be, whether that’s not getting to defend our state championship or the roster changes. Instead, I’m doing my best to take an optimistic approach and right now that’s focusing on a sophomore class with a ton of potential and a couple seniors who are doing a great job passing on the tradition of what we are building here at Wilde Lake,” Shea said, noting in particular the leadership being provided by three-year captain and returning first team All-County midfielder Liam Nesbitt along with fellow senior Tyriq Umrani.

“Our focus is on progressing the entire group and the great thing is that every day we get out there together, we see little flashes in the pan of what our potential might be moving forward.”

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Shea and the Wildecats did get some great news less than a week before games were set to begin, as reigning Player of the Year Ousman Touray decided to officially opt into the season. Touray, who led the county with 49 points (23 goals, 3 assists) as a junior, was looking into reclassifying before ultimately deciding against it.

Now, he instead rejoins his teammates in an effort to pick up where they left off more than 15 months ago.

Wilde Lake, which is chasing the program’s first county title since 2010, is certainly not alone when it comes to area programs navigating things on the fly as the season gets underway.

For one, the weather has wreaked havoc on the ability to hold in-person practices in the early going. In the initial two weeks after fall sports kicked off on Feb. 13, half of the days were spent in a virtual setting due to after-school activities being canceled.

Then there are the players trying to balance club team practices and games around the shifting high school schedule that was announced just before the season began.

“The kids have different commitments, things they had in place before they even knew whether they would actually get to play this year, so as coaches we just have to be flexible,” Howard coach Nils Schroder said. “I’m lucky in the sense that basically all my guys have opted in, but some of them are missing practice time for work or, in some cases, for a club practice. I’m trying to be as accommodating as possible, with the understanding that it might take longer than usual to figure all this out because of all the moving pieces.”

Howard, coming off a 2019 season where it finished tied for second in the county standings with a record of 8-2-1, brings back seven players with starting experience from that group — including first-team All-County selection Robbie Ryerson.

Defending county-champion River Hill is on the other side of the coin. The Hawks find themselves with more unknowns this preseason due to returning only four starters. That puts a little extra pressure on the team’s senior leaders, which include returning All-County selections Jed Dixon and Jonah Stoutenborough.

“I’m absolutely leaning on them, 10 times over,” River Hill coach Matt Shagogue said. “I tell the young guys all the time, ‘You can ask me anything you want, but these guys — Jonah, Jed and a handful of other guys — they know exactly what the expectations are and they are tremendous resources.’ And there are definitely a lot of new guys for us still getting their feet wet, so getting that leadership from the guys who have been there before is as important as ever with us having less time than usual on the field together.”

Wilde Lake's Liam Nesbitt lunges forward to try and stop River Hill's Jonah Stoutenborough from passing the ball up the field during their game on Oct. 28, 2019.
Wilde Lake's Liam Nesbitt lunges forward to try and stop River Hill's Jonah Stoutenborough from passing the ball up the field during their game on Oct. 28, 2019. (Nicole Munchel for the Baltimore/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Shagogue added that considering the unprecedented nature of the season so far and what might lie ahead, he’s going in expecting the unexpected.

“It’s been roughly a year and a half since these teams have stepped on the field together and a lot can change in that amount of time. It’s going to be interesting to see which teams are able to come together the quickest and it might not necessarily be the same schools you usually see,” Shagogue said. “I mean, with the way the season is set up with no state playoffs, you don’t even know how each coach is even going to approach this season.”

Centennial, Marriotts Ridge, Mt. Hebron and Oakland Mills all finished with winning overall records in 2019 and each program returns at least one All-County player.

And with Touray back at Wilde Lake, there will be plenty of offensive firepower around the county. The top three goal scorers from 2019 return in Touray, Centennial’s Bryson Baker (15 goals, 33 points as a junior) and Hammond’s Isaac Owusu (12 goals, 30 points as a junior).

Road to county title

There may be no MPSSAA-affiliated postseason tournament this spring, but if things go according to plan there will be a culminating county event that will help determine a county champion.

After the first eight games of the season, the teams will be seeded according to the standings, and the top eight squads will have the opportunity to play for a title.

“I think the county championship aspect of this season is huge for the kids. It adds something to play for that a lot of them, especially the seniors, thought they weren’t going to get,” Schroder said.

The 12 county teams will be divided up into two divisions:

Division A: Atholton, Hammond, Long Reach, Reservoir, River Hill, Wilde Lake

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Division B: Centennial, Glenelg, Howard, Marriotts Ridge, Mt. Hebron, Oakland Mills

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The first five games of the season will be matchups against each of the opponents within a team’s division, and the next three will be crossover contests based on the standings to that point. For example, the top team in Division A will play the second-, fourth- and sixth-best teams in Division B, while the second-best team in Division A will play the first-, third- and fifth-best team in Division B. The odd-numbered teams in the division standings will play the even-numbered teams in the other division, and vice versa.

After the eighth game, currently scheduled for March 30, the county teams will then be seeded 1-12 based on record. The top eight teams will be put in a bracket for a tournament to determine the county champion, while the bottom four will be placed into a three-game round-robin format to finish out the season.

Here’s a closer look at each of the teams ahead of the first play date of the season on March 5:

Atholton

2019 record: 1-7-3 county, 2-10-3 overall

Coach: Derek Phillips, first season

Top players: Seniors Ethan Addo (D), Nikolas DeSousa (G), Nicholas Fato (D), Ryan Hernandez (D) and Kyle Simmons (MF/F); junior Joshua Martins (MF).

Kick Off: The Raiders have a new coach and a lot of turnover after graduating a large senior class. But Phillips, who is an Atholton grad coaching for the first time in the county, said there is talent to work with. The 2019 season was short on victories and goals (10 in 15 games), but the Raiders did lose five games by a goal or less. Martins is the team’s leading returning scorer, scoring three goals to go with an assist as a sophomore. DeSousa is a captain in goal, with Addo, Fato and Hernandez all returners in the back as well to create a solid defensive unit.

Centennial's Cameron Grable (6) in action against Marriotts Ridge's Madewa Adeyemo (20) during a high school boys soccer playoff match between Centennial and Marriotts Ridge.
Centennial's Cameron Grable (6) in action against Marriotts Ridge's Madewa Adeyemo (20) during a high school boys soccer playoff match between Centennial and Marriotts Ridge. (Daniel Kucin Jr. For Baltimore Sun Media/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Centennial

2019 record: 7-3-1, 8-6-1

Coach: Justin Thomas, fourth season

Top players: Seniors Bryson Baker (F), Andy Hockersmith (D) and Kevin Salazar (F); juniors Cameron Grable (MF) and Sammy Molz (D); sophomore Kodee Karcher (F).

Kick Off: The Eagles, who have had a winning county record every season since coach Thomas took over in 2017, bring back five starters. Baker was a first team All-County selection as a junior and finished second in the county in scoring with 33 points. Salazar (nine points as a junior) and Karcher will provide plenty of support up top and Thomas expects the attack to be the team’s strength. Molz, who stands 6-foot-5 at center back, and Hockersmith will anchor the defense. Junior midfielder Eddie Aguilar is recovering from an elbow injury but could return and provide a boost for the county tournament.

Glenelg

2019 record: 1-8-2, 1-12-2

Coach: Joseph Osborne, sixth season

Top players: Seniors Ethan Barajas (MF); Jake Barney (MF), Russell Henggeler (MF), Ryan Kryder (D) and J.T. Shatzer (MF).

Kick Off: There is plenty of experience on the roster, which features nine seniors, seven returning starters and several other players that saw significant time in 2019. The midfield is a particular area of strength, with four players — Barajas, Barney, Henggeler and Shatzer — who are all in their third or fourth year on varsity.

Hammond

2019 record: 4-7, 6-10

Coach: David Reamer, fourth season

Top players: Seniors Jason Fuentes (F), Isaac Owusu (F), Brandon Sindjui (MF) and Jake Skintges (D); junior Walid Khokhar (G); sophomore Diego Carino (MF).

Kick Off: The Golden Bears doubled their win totals in league play and overall in 2019 and will be led by its offensive unit this year. Owusu was third in the county as a junior with 30 points (12 goals and 6 assists), while Sindjui scored multiple goals as well. Among the keys to making continual progress will be the defensive end of the field, where the team allowed three or more goals in half of its games.

Howard's Ryan Hartlove (18) in action during a high school boys soccer match between Howard and River Hill.
Howard's Ryan Hartlove (18) in action during a high school boys soccer match between Howard and River Hill. (Daniel Kucin Jr./Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Howard

2019 record: 8-2-1, 10-5-1

Coach: Nils Schroder, 11th season

Top players: Seniors Brayden Bevels (D), Ryan Hartlove (F), Karl Quist-Therson (MF) and Robbie Ryerson (F); juniors Joe Sircus (MF) and Viktor Struck (D); sophomore Kenny Quist-Therson (MF).

Kick Off: The Lions have posted a winning record in county play three of the last four years, including tying for second place a year ago — the highest finish for the team in the standings the last decade. Now, with seven players with starting experience back in the fold, Schroder said the team feels like it has “some unfinished business and wants to prove to themselves and the rest of the county that last year wasn’t a fluke.” The team is experienced in the midfield and dangerous up top with Ryerson (16 points in 2019), Sircus (11) and Hartlove (10) all producing double-digit point seasons the last time they stepped on the field together.

Long Reach

2019 record: 2-9, 2-11

Coach: Sylvanus Alves, fifth season

Top players: Seniors Eric Allen (MF), Joseph Mule (MF), Nate Rogers (G), Silas Sarmiento (MF), Henry Sharon (MF), Hayden Tootle (D) and Adam Yang (MF); freshman Edin Casasola (MF).

Kick Off: The Lightning won only two county games in 2019, but they were impressive victories against middle-of-the-pack teams Hammond and Mt. Hebron. Nine starters return from that group, including a 10-member senior class, as the team looks to build on those results and make up a move up the standings. Sharon accounted for a third of the team’s scoring as a junior (three goals, one assist) and leads a deep midfield unit that Alves expects to be the team’s strength.

Marriotts Ridge

2019 record: 6-4-1, 7-6-1

Coach: Quinn Khouri, fifth season

Top players: Seniors Cody Blessing (MF) and Nick Citro (D); junior Misha Ott (F); sophomore Kaden Bryan (MF).

Kick Off: The Mustangs have quietly been one of the county’s most consistent teams of late, finishing with a 6-4-1 league record three straight years. Five starters return from last year’s group, including the lone freshman to make All-County in Bryan. Khouri fully expects the team to be strongest in the middle of the field and likes how many talented underclassmen there are on the roster “to push the more experienced players to get better and better.”

Oakland Mills' Geo Estrada, left, and Mount Hebron's Gabe Bonilla vie for a ball in the first half of a high school soccer match.
Oakland Mills' Geo Estrada, left, and Mount Hebron's Gabe Bonilla vie for a ball in the first half of a high school soccer match. (Steve Ruark/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Mt. Hebron

2019 record: 4-5-2, 9-7-3

Coach: Mike Linsenmeyer, 19th season

Top players: Seniors Gabe Bonilla, Brendan Demek, Andy Strohman, Jason Taylor and Ethan Wool-Lewis; juniors Logan Dunn, Alex Likakis, Jimmy Linsenmeyer and Liam McCaffery; sophomore Mark Adja.

Kick Off: The Vikings peaked at the right time in 2019 after finishing below .500 in county play, making a run to the state semifinals. The team will be looking to build on that with a large contingent of starters back in the fold. Bonilla (12 points in 2019), Taylor (10), Linsenmeyer (7) and McCaffery (7) were four of the team’s top five scorers during that last fall season, with Linsenmeyer earning second team All-County honors from his midfield position.

Oakland Mills

2019 record: 5-4-2, 8-5-3

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Coach: Bryan Ringgold, first season

Top players: Seniors Alex Estrada (MF), Daniel Miranda (G), Mateo Moore (MF) and Taylor Nelson (MF).

Kick Off: With long-time coach Don Shea opting out for the spring season due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, the Scorpions will be relying even more on its experienced group on the field. There are seven starters back, including second team All-County performers in Miranda and Nelson. Miranda led the league in save percentage (90) as a junior and anchored the defense while allowing just 14 goals against and making 114 saves. Nelson, meanwhile, was second on the team in 2019 with 16 points (4 goals, 8 assists). Oakland Mills has had three straight winning seasons.

Reservoir's Theo Akuffo, center, closes in on the ball during a game against Howard in 2019.
Reservoir's Theo Akuffo, center, closes in on the ball during a game against Howard in 2019. (Doug Kapustin/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Reservoir

2019 record: 4-6-1, 6-9-1

Coach: David Obeng-Darko, third season

Top players: Seniors Theo Akuffo (MF), Imran Edirs (D) and Alexavier Sabilon (MF); juniors Aidan Atang (MF), Owen Bennertz (D), Chris Gunning (MF) and Nathan Macek (D).

Kick Off: The Gators bring back 13 players and four starters from their up-and-down campaign in 2019, which included a win over Centennial in the regular season and a playoff victory over Long Reach. The most experience comes from the midfield group, which includes Akuffo and Sabilon who have been part of the program now for several seasons. The defensive unit anchored by Bennertz, Edirs and Macek could also be improved after allowing 32 goals last season.

River Hill

2019 record: 9-2, 13-3

Coach: Matt Shagogue, 15th season

Top players: Seniors Jed Dixon (MF), Eric Gesell (G) and Jonah Stoutenborough (F); juniors Aidan Edmonds (F), Milan Gupta (MF) and Jack Nelson (D).

Kick Off: The defending county champions graduated three All-County performers and only bring back a handful of starters, but the Hawks still have plenty of intriguing pieces to work with. Stoutenborough and Dixon are both four-year varsity players that made second team All-County as juniors. Stoutenborough is the team’s leading returning scorer (25 points in 2019) and Dixon is making the transition from defense to the midfield, anchoring what Shagogue expects to be the team’s strongest area of the field. Keep an eye on Gupta in the midfield as well, as he plays high school soccer for the first time after opting to go the academy route in previous seasons.

Wilde Lake

2019 record: 8-2-1, 15-3-1

Coach: Trevor Shea, fifth season

Top players: Seniors Liam Nesbitt (MF), Ousman Touray (F) and Tyriq Umrani (D/F); sophomores Desmond Adeyemi (F), Shea Nesbitt (D/MF) and Rowley Jackson (F).

Kick Off: Even with a couple key departures from the 2019 state championship team, the Wildecats still have the talent to be one of the county’s best on a nightly basis this spring. Leading the way is Touray, the reigning Player of the Year and county scoring leader, and Liam Nesbitt, who is a three-year captain and two-time All-County selection. Umrani provides versatility and will likely start on defense, but is capable of pushing forward as needed. Shea Nesbitt is similar to Umrani in that respect, helping anchor the back but just as valuable in a more offensive role if necessary. Wilde Lake has finished top three in the county standings two straight seasons.

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