Before the 2018 field hockey season, Mt. Hebron head coach Jeannette Ireland was talking with assistant coach Donna Schaaf and junior Esha Shah about the lineup the Vikings would feature that season.
When Ireland suggested that Shah could play on the front line, Shah politely voiced her opinion and said she’d be a better fit at the top of the diamond in the midfield.
“I will never forget that conversation, because she had the confidence in her skills, but she was also so respectful,” Ireland said. “After that conversation, I knew that she had just arrived. … Putting her at the top of the diamond was a game-changer for us.”
About 16 months after that conversation, Shah was named the 2019 Howard County Times/Columbia Flier field hockey Player of the Year. After a first-team All-County junior campaign, the midfielder backed it up this fall as the best player on the best regular-season team in Howard County. The senior scored 14 goals and had eight assists in 12 games for the county champion Vikings.
“It’s so nice that I’m able to represent Mt. Hebron in terms of field hockey in Howard County, because it’s usually Glenelg or Marriotts Ridge or sometimes Atholton that gets the spotlight,” Shah said. “I was just really happy that I was able to help bring Mt. Hebron’s name up.”
Anyone capable of winning a player of the year award in Howard County — or signing to play field hockey at the University of Virginia — has innate talent. However, according to Ireland, Shah’s natural ability doesn’t overshadow her work ethic. Ireland believes Shah’s development into a Division I-caliber player was through her persistent hard work.
When Ireland first met Shah, the ninth-grader was repeatedly driving and reverse chipping balls against a fence. A couple years later, the longtime Vikings coach caught Shah practicing alone during a “Code Red” heat advisory day, and Ireland had to go tell her to stop. Then, as a senior captain, Shah would ask Ireland to leave the cage on the field and for a bag of balls to get work in after practice.
“She made herself into a great player,” Ireland said. “She really worked so hard to make herself into the player she is today.”
In addition to her work ethic, Shah’s rare combination of size, speed and stick skills made her a “scary” player to defend, Ireland said. The 5-foot-8 senior has a long wingspan, which allows her to get to loose balls before opposing players and create separation for her vicious reverse chip.
“She’s such a presence, and she can be scary coming down the middle of the field,” Ireland said. “She’s tall, has long legs and of course with that reverse stick chip, she can be scary. She has a scary shot, and she has absolutely hit every single player on her team with her hard shot.”
Shah broke out for the Vikings last season with 15 goals and nine assists, and while Ireland believed Shah was worthy of the award a year ago, she understood why it went to Glenelg senior Jenny Giampalmo, who was the fourth straight Glenelg player to win the honor. For Shah, the standout junior campaign came after two underwhelming seasons prior.
“I always felt like I was playing catch-up in understanding the game,” Shah said, “I didn’t play the way I wanted to those first two years. It was a big learning curve for me. I knew I had the skills and the shots, but I felt like I didn’t have the experience on the field."
Her senior season didn’t start the way she had dreamed, though. She injured her hip flexor early in the preseason and missed the first three games. Once she got healthy, it didn’t take Shah long to pick up where she left off her junior season. She scored in her first game back against Centennial and then assisted both of Hebron’s goals in its win over Severna Park.
During the season, opposing coaches were always aware of Shah’s presence on the field. She was always face guarded and was often double-teamed, which led Shah to tally eight assists — two more than she had in her first three seasons combined.
Shah said the highlights of her senior season were landmark triumphs over programs like Severna Park, Chesapeake (Anne Arundel County) and Glenelg — all teams Hebron has either never beaten or hasn’t defeated in more than a decade.
The best part of the year, though, was seeing Ireland record her 300th career victory.
“To see her recognized for her hard work and dedication to the program was incredible,” Shah said. “She’s always cared for me as a player and a person, and she’s always wanted me to develop as a player. She really has a passion for the sport, and every day in practice I can tell she loves being out there. You want to work hard for her, and it’s so great to play under a person like her.”
The initial signing date for prospective student athletes enrolling in college for the 2020-21 school year is Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019 and a multitude of individuals around Howard County participated in the festivities.
Leaving Mt. Hebron as “one of the top players in program history,” according to Ireland, with 46 career goals and 14 assists, Shah will move on to play collegiately at University of Virginia — a program that made it to the 2019 Final Four.
The senior, along with fellow captains Eloise Clevenger and Gracie Kennedy, led Marriotts Ridge to its first state championship in program history when the Mustangs defeated Oakdale, 1-0, in the Class 2A final. A University of Delaware commit, Gladstein led the Mustangs with 13 goals and six assists, ranking seventh in the county with 32 points.
The highlight of her senior campaign was her sudden-death shootout goal in the state semifinals. She was also a first-team selection last season and a second-team pick as a sophomore.
“To the program of Marriotts Ridge, Emma has definitely contributed more than just as a leading scorer,” said Marriotts Ridge coach Stacie Gado. “She shared a passion with her teammates a passion for the sport and her desire for the team to successful."
Sarah Nam, Reservoir, senior, forward.
Nam, who is mainly a lacrosse player, ranked sixth in the county with 33 points. The forward scored 15 goals and had three assists for the Gators.
“Sarah wasn’t our vocal leader, but her presence on the field was how she led the team,” said Reservoir coach Megan Maloney. “She is one of the humblest players I’ve ever coached. When she steps on the field, she will do anything to get the job done. She was a great leader, and I was so happy that she had a phenomenal senior season.”
Clevenger caused havoc for opposing defenses with her speed on the edge and her hard crosses into the box. The senior, alongside fellow captains Gladstein and Gracie Kennedy, led the Mustangs to the 2A state championship in the fall.
A University of Maryland lacrosse commit, Clevenger scored eight goals and had five assists in her senior campaign. She was also a first-team selection last season.
“What Elle brought to our program was her intensity in the game and her flexibility of working with her teammates,” Gado said. “She had that silent communication between her and Kayla (Brusco) and the other forwards of where to be. Her speed and the strength of her cross were huge for us.”
Quinn Kindbom, River Hill, senior, midfielder.
Kindbom was a senior captain on a young River Hill team that made it to the state semifinals. An Indiana University commit, Kindbom was one of the top scorers in the county, finishing second in points with 42 (16 goals and 10 assists).
The senior midfielder led the Hawks with five goals and four assists in their playoff run that ended with a loss to Urbana in the 3A semis. She was also a first-team selection the last two seasons.
“Your center midfielder is where you put your best player, because she controls the flow of the game," said River Hill coach Shelly Chamness. "She’s played there for us for the last four years. She scored a lot of goals, but she set up a lot of things for us and set up a lot of goals.”
Kennedy’s contributions to the state champion Mustangs didn’t often show up in the stat sheet, but her stick skills in the midfield were crucial for Marriotts Ridge.
Kennedy, who led the Mustangs to the 2A state championship alongside senior captains Gladstein and Clevenger, is committed to play lacrosse at Virginia Tech. She was a second-team selection last year.
“Gracie has this great ability to get to the ball, make a dodge and make a pass," Gado said. "She is that transition person to get the ball from the defensive end to our forwards. She never let up. She was always diligent and always trying to make a contribution to help the team. Both her and Elle were our quiet leaders.”
Ashley O’Byrne, Glenelg, senior, midfielder.
While 2019 was a down year by Glenelg’s extremely high standards, O’Byrne is one of four first-team selections for the Gladiators.
O’Byrne had five assists and two defensive saves for the Gladiators. The senior is committed to play lacrosse at St. Joseph’s University.
“Ashley is so coachable and strong and athletic,” said Glenelg coach Nikki Trunzo. “She was the biggest part of our midfield and was an important leader for us.”
Puja Nanjappa, River Hill, freshman, midfielder.
Nanjappa is the first freshman to make the All-County team since Glenelg’s Kathryn Hoffman was a second-team selection in 2016. She’s the first freshman to make the first team since Atholton’s Tori Raulin in 2014.
Nanjappa’s game sense and stick skills bolstered River Hill’s midfield en route to the Hawks’ state playoff run. She scored two goals and had five assists for the Hawks.
“I heard we’d be having a freshman coming in who could start, but when Puja showed up, she was amazing,” Chamness said. “She’s the best freshman I’ve ever seen. She moves the ball so well, it’s like the stick is just an extension of her hand. The fact that she was mentioned by referees and every other coach that we played was amazing.”
Haley Kampert, Mt. Hebron, junior, defender.
While Shah was scoring goals for the county champion Vikings, Kampert was leading a stout defense that allowed fewer than one goal per game.
Kampert, who was on Hebron’s offensive and defensive corner unit, chipped in with three goals and three assists. She was also a first-team pick last season.
“The center of our field was Esha, Haley and Ella (Ruiz), and they were just amazing," said Ireland. “Haley is just always a fierce competitor. She plays with incredible determination. She just always puts forth 100 percent effort in everything she does. She honestly never comes off the field, because she’s that type of player.”
Grace Meissner, Glenelg, senior, defender.
Meissner, who was one of the leaders on defense for Glenelg, earned her first All-County selection.
The senior tallied three goals and four defensive saves for the Gladiators. Trunzo said Meissner was “a calming force” for the Gladiators’ defense.
“Grace is an awesome leader," Trunzo said. “She’s so poised and has a quiet strength. She was a wall out there.”
Lindsey Cowan, Howard, senior, defender.
Cowan led a Howard defense that allowed one goal per game against Howard County opponents.
A first-team All-County selection last year, Cowan tallied four goals and three assists for the Lions in 2019.
“Lindsey pretty much was our saving grace on defense," said Howard coach Courtney Sprissler. “I never had to worry about a fast break or a corner when she was in. She was a great help with telling the younger girls where to be and showing them her skills. We will definitely miss her on the defensive line.”
Ella Ruiz, Mt. Hebron, junior, defender.
Ruiz is a first-team All-County selection in her first and only season playing in Howard County. An exchange student from Australia, Ruiz scored six goals and three assists for the Vikings.
She was a six-time member and three-time captain of the Australia Capital Territory Canberra Gold Regional Team before coming to Hebron for the 2019-20 school year.
“She made such a big impact on our team,” Ireland said. “She is so talented with her stick skills and her speed. She is an incredible passer, and she was kind of our quarterback on the field. She was great at directing the play in front of her.”
Sarah Kang, Glenelg, junior, defender.
Kang, who split her time in the midfield and on defense, earned her first All-County selection after a solid year for the Gladiators.
The junior led Glenelg with eight goals and two assists. Kang scored a goal in both of Glenelg’s playoff games and in the team’s 2-1 win over River Hill during the regular season.
“Sarah has been on the varsity team since her freshman year," Trunzo said. “Her skill and knowledge of the game is such a great component of our team.”
Rachel Barker, Glenelg, junior, goalie.
With Glenelg’s difficult strength of schedule, Barker kept the Gladiators in most of their games. The junior, who played in goal when Glenelg won the state championship in 2017 and lost in 2018, saved shots at an 88 percent clip.
“Rachel was the backbone of our team,” Trunzo said. “She’s grown up so much since her freshman year. She’s become so confident and strong and her fitness has improved. I don’t know if Rachel realizes how great she is. She’s a solid goalkeeper, kid and teammate.”