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With top talent returning, Howard County girls soccer teams preparing for tight championship battle

Marriotts Ridge girls soccer, pictured here during a practice in February, hopes to repeat as county champions this season. With several other talented teams in the county, though, the Mustangs know that goal won't be easy to accomplish.
Marriotts Ridge girls soccer, pictured here during a practice in February, hopes to repeat as county champions this season. With several other talented teams in the county, though, the Mustangs know that goal won't be easy to accomplish. (Dylan Slagle/Baltimore Sun Media)

Every high school sports season brings roster turnover.

Seniors graduate, underclassmen move up to varsity and new freshmen arrive.

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While the upcoming Howard County girls soccer season presents roster shakeups for every top team, it’s the returning talent that has the league’s coaches excited.

Between having four of the top five point producers in the county last season returning and 16 players with All-County accolades back on the field, most of the county’s top teams won’t be lacking talent or experience this season.

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While River Hill, Wilde Lake, Mt. Hebron and Reservoir are all poised to compete for the county crown, everything goes through Marriottsville until further notice.

“We know how competitive it is,” said Marriotts Ridge coach Darius Qualls, who led the Mustangs to the county championship in 2019. “We know what it takes to get there, but we also know River Hill, Wilde Lake, Reservoir and a few others are always in that top half of the standings. We know going in that it’s going to be a fight.”

Coming off a 11-3 season, with an 8-1 mark in county play, the Mustangs are poised to compete once again for the top spot in Howard County with nine returning starters. Senior forward Jordyn Choe, one of Marriotts Ridge’s top returning players, said she thinks the Mustangs have the talent to repeat as county champions.

“With more practices and team chemistry, I think we can come back even stronger,” Choe said. “We’re just really excited because we work really well together.”

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One challenge Marriotts Ridge will face this season is replacing key players from a defense that allowed only eight goals in 14 games last season (and three goals in nine county contests).

Goalie Kendall Bryan and defenders Paige and Lindsay Hockensmith all graduated, and Qualls is expecting Morgan Choe, a first-team All-County player alongside her twin sister in 2019, and new goalie Caroline Albert to step up.

While the Stangs’ defense lost a few key players, their front line remains intact with Jordyn Choe, sophomore Giavana Liberto and junior Megan Wagner — a trio that combined for 21 goals and 13 assists in 2019.

“I have high expectations for all of them,” Qualls said.

Liberto and Jordyn Choe both finished top 10 in the county in points last season with 21 and 20, respectively. The duo was difficult to stop last year, and with Jordyn Choe moving into her senior campaign and Liberto gaining her first experience of varsity soccer last season, they could be even more of a challenge for opposing defenses this year.

Marriotts Ridge's Giavana Liberto (center) is greeted by teammate Jordyn Choe after scoring the game's only gola in the second half. Marriotts Ridge holds on for a 1-0 victory over visiting Liberty Tuesday night in Marriottsville.
Marriotts Ridge's Giavana Liberto (center) is greeted by teammate Jordyn Choe after scoring the game's only gola in the second half. Marriotts Ridge holds on for a 1-0 victory over visiting Liberty Tuesday night in Marriottsville. (Doug Kapustin/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

“[Giavana] and I work really well together,” said Jordyn Choe. “We have the same mindset when it comes to attacking — being patient, working off each other and using our center [midfielders] — and we rely on our communication a lot.”

While Marriotts Ridge won the county crown, that doesn’t mean the Mustangs were perfect, as Qualls’ squad had trouble scoring in the first half of games, leaning heavily on its defense.

In some games, like against Centennial to end the regular season, stout defense and a clutch goal led the Mustangs to victory. But the first-half scoring woes finally caught up with Marriotts Ridge in a 1-0 overtime loss to Mt. Hebron in the 3A East Region I title game.

“That’s been the emphasis through the first few weeks,” Qualls said. “We’ve been working on that. When we play our home opener against Mt. Hebron, hopefully we can show that in our first match, because you won’t always win the game if you only get goal-scoring chances in the second half.”

During the entire season, the omnipresent elephant in the room will be the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions that have been placed on the county programs.

The fall sports season, which was indefinitely postponed back in August, is happening in the late winter/early spring. That alone would make the season unique, if not for the shortened seven-week schedule, the removal of the state championship tournaments and the mask mandates.

But Jordyn Choe — like many of the players in the county — is just thankful to have a season.

“I’m really grateful the season is happening,” she said. “We’re all really excited, especially because of COVID. We didn’t know if we would even have a season or not. We’re just ready to play and have fun.”

While the Mustangs won the county title last season, Marriotts Ridge wasn’t the last Howard County team standing in the state playoffs.

Wilde Lake won eight straight games, between the end of the regular season and the postseason, before falling in the Class 3A state final to Northern Calvert.

Entering this season, the Wildecats’ biggest departure from graduation is Angie Geralis — a first-team All-County defender in each of her final three seasons.

However, the Wildecats do return two of the most dynamic players in the county in senior midfielder Aicha Wilson and junior forward Gia Johnson — a duo that both received All-County honors and combined for 15 goals and 19 assists last season. And while Wilson and Johnson garnered attention from opposing defenses, it was Jillian Ingram, now a senior midfielder, who led the team in goals with 10.

“Experience is always a factor in a team’s success, and in this unique season, their experience is invaluable,” said first-year head coach Kristyn Neubauer. “Having been essential to the team’s run to the state final in 2019, their strength, leadership, knowledge of the game and ability to make quick decisions on the field are key.”

Wilde Lake’s impressive 2019 season was due in part to success against River Hill, the perennial powerhouse in the county and the Class 2A state champs from 2016-2018.

Last season, the Hawks had a rollercoaster year. They struggled with a 2-5-1 record to open the campaign, won seven straight games to end the regular season and lost to Wilde Lake in the 3A East Region II final.

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This year, River Hill hopes to return to their normal place atop the county by leaning on its stout defense, led by second-team All-County goalie Caroline Duffy.

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“She’s definitely our No. 1 leader on and off the field,” said Hawks head coach Brian Song. “She’s our only returning captain. Her influence is going to be a major factor. Her [game] has grown tremendously from last [season] to this year, and you can see that with her body language getting more mature.”

River Hill goalkeeper Caroline Duffy gets her gloves on the ball before Gia Johnson, Wilde Lake, can get a foot to it in the first half of their girls soccer game on September 24, 2019.
River Hill goalkeeper Caroline Duffy gets her gloves on the ball before Gia Johnson, Wilde Lake, can get a foot to it in the first half of their girls soccer game on September 24, 2019. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

The Hawks are tasked with replacing graduates Sophia Elguera (first-team All County defender), Jamie Caine (six goals in 2019) and Chelsea Baker (seven assists in 2019). Song, who is entering his 16th season leading the Hawks, expects junior forward Ara Omitowoju and senior midfielder Madeline Florenzo to lead the team offensively.

“I think the key is if they can gel as a team in this short season,” Song said. “In the fall season, we use August and September to gel and get that team chemistry. My main concern is how we can adapt and gel, and our upperclassmen are going to have to be the leaders of the team. I’m hoping they can bring the team together.”

Mt. Hebron, which made a run in the playoffs before losing to Wilde Lake in the state quarterfinals, is returning its two top point leaders from last season in senior midfielders Alex Masse and Riley Benson, who combined for 11 goals and five assists last year.

The Vikings, however, will need to replace two of their top defensive players due to graduation in second-team All-County goalie Ainsley Sowers and first-team All-County defender Julia Noppenberger. The Vikings also lost captain Maddie Hammond (five goals, two assists in 2019) to graduation.

“[We are] only returning 4 starters, but I don’t think this is a negative in any way,” said Mt. Hebron head coach Tim Deppen, who is in his 19th season leading the Vikings. “We had a very deep roster last year, and I look forward to seeing our team in action this season. We continue to have a ton of talent at every position.”

No team in the county is bringing back more starters than Reservoir, which was one of the better teams in Howard County in 2018 but took a step back in 2019 due to several injuries. Taking into account those injured players returning, the Gators have 11 players on the roster with starting experience.

It’s not just depth that Reservoir has, though. The Gators may also have one of the best one-two punches in the county in senior Kat Parris, the 2019 Howard County girls soccer Player of the Year, and Karis Turner, an All-County selection as a freshman in 2018.

Kat Parris is photographed after being named the 2019 Howard County girls soccer player of the year.
Kat Parris is photographed after being named the 2019 Howard County girls soccer player of the year. (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Despite their combined prowess, Parris and Turner have only played together for three games the last two seasons. Both had minor injuries in 2018, and Turner missed the entire 2019 season with an injury.

“Most coaches are lucky to have one player with the skill and the speed that the both of them have, nonetheless two,” said Phil Ranker, who has been Reservoir’s head coach since 2014. “I’m just hopeful that we can get them on the field this whole season together, because I really do think it could be special.”

Road to county title

Even though no MPSSAA-affiliated postseason will occur this spring, county leaders have developed a plan for a culminating tournament that will determine a county champion.

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

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

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

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

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. In the crossover games, 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 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 squads will be placed into a three-game round-robin format to finish out the season.

“I’m hopeful we can make it through the season,” Ranker said. “If we can get these regular season games in, I think we’ll really see that competitive fire start back up again as we move on toward the tournament.”

Here’s a look at all 12 county teams ahead of the first play date of the season on March 5:

Atholton

Coach: Clifford Walcott

2019 record: 3-5-1 county, 5-7-1 overall

Returning starters: 6

Top players: Seniors Alyssa Clearfield (MF), Madison Scott (D), Kati Morris (MF), Taylor Lau (MF/A) and Molly Flynn (MF); junior Sarah Saula (A).

Coach’s corner: “We have six returning starters, whose experience will be a positive factor for our squad. … There is positive team chemistry already, which will take care of playing for each other when the going gets tough.” — head coach Clifford Walcott

Centennial's Lauren Pellegrini makes a lunging efforts to connect with the ball during a girls soccer playoff game at Atholton High School on Tuesday, Oct. 30.
Centennial's Lauren Pellegrini makes a lunging efforts to connect with the ball during a girls soccer playoff game at Atholton High School on Tuesday, Oct. 30. (Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Centennial

Coach: Hank Hurren

2019 record: 5-3-1, 8-6-1

Returning starters: 4

Top players: Seniors Carolyn DeSena (D/MF) and Cicely Clark (D); juniors Lauren Pellegrini (MF/A) and Callie LasCasas (MF/A).

Coach’s corner: “Attitude and a sense of camaraderie is a strength. [It’s key] for us to be able to implement or impose our style of play, take chances we create and limit chances for our opponents.” — head coach Hank Hurren

Glenelg

Coach: Vincente D’Antuono (first year)

2019 record: 4-6-1, 7-9-1

Returning starters: 8

Top players: Seniors Tegan Swope (D/MF), Sarah Lathrop (MF/A) and Katie Ringer (D); freshmen Stephanie Lathrop (MF/A) and Carlin Costell (MF/A).

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Coach’s corner: “We are so glad we’re having a season for so many reasons. … Patience and playing within our means will be [important]. We have a large group of players that all bring something to the field.” — head coach Vincente D’Antuono

Hammond

Coach: Molly Schaefer (first year)

2019 record: 0-3, 2-9-1

Returning starters: 9

Top players: Senior Camryn Johnson (D) and Grace Yodzis (D); juniors Laura Keister (MF), Milana Newby (A) and Leah Steinhorn (A); sophomores Jenna Wilson (MF) and Morgan Lane (D).

Coach’s corner: “Having experience is helpful as the players know each other well and how they move together. … The players are excited to play and they want to do well. They want to be competitive, and they take instruction from the coaches well.” — head coach Molly Schaefer

Howard

Coach: Laine Angle

2019 record: 6-4-1, 9-5-1

Returning starters: 6

Top players: Seniors Caroline Otchet (GK), Tiffany Rodriguez (MF) and Danielle Campbell (A); junior Skylar Ehart (D).

Coach’s corner: “In addition to having a solid core of returning players, the positive vibes and determination to make the best out of this shortened season really sparks a fire in these players. I am looking forward to watching the team grow over the next few weeks of strong competition.” — head coach Laine Angle

Long Reach

Coach: Oliver Male

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

Returning starters: 8

Top players: Seniors Payton Holmes (D), Alexis Richardson (D) and Kailey Leibe (GK); junior Hannah Williams (D/MF); sophomore Reagan Burfeind (D).

Coach’s corner: “I think for the returning players who were freshman last year, the experience will help them massively this season. Out wide we have a lot of depth, on both flanks that is, so I feel whoever is playing in those positions will do a good job this year.” — head coach Oliver Male

Marriotts Ridge coach, Darius Qualls talks to senior, Lindsay Hockensmith at halftime. Marriotts Ridge holds on for a 1-0 victory over visiting Liberty Tuesday night in Marriottsville.
Marriotts Ridge coach, Darius Qualls talks to senior, Lindsay Hockensmith at halftime. Marriotts Ridge holds on for a 1-0 victory over visiting Liberty Tuesday night in Marriottsville. (Doug Kapustin/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Marriotts Ridge

Coach: Darius Qualls

2019 record: 8-1, 11-3

Returning starters: 9

Top players: Seniors Jordyn Choe (A), Morgan Choe (D), Lauren Fisher (D) and Morgan Lee (MF); junior Megan Wagner (MF); sophomore Giavana Liberto (MF).

Coach’s corner: “They’ve been able to adapt pretty well. I think being confined to their homes has been a challenge, not just physically but mentally as well. But I think the girls have done a good job of staying active, staying in shape and keeping their skills up.” — head coach Darius Qualls

Mt. Hebron's Alex Masse tries to move the ball around Wilde Lake's defense in Saturday's playoff game.
Mt. Hebron's Alex Masse tries to move the ball around Wilde Lake's defense in Saturday's playoff game. (Nicole Munchel for the Baltimore/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Mt. Hebron

Coach: Tim Deppen

2019 record: 6-3, 10-7

Returning starters: 4

Top players: Seniors Alex Masse (MF/A) and Riley Benson (MF); junior Ana Hoover (D).

Coach’s corner: “We have so much talent and sometimes that can be difficult if there are large egos on the team. I think our strength is that every girl is focused on the team doing well and our combined success over their individual stats and success. I think that will pay off in a big way.” — head coach Tim Deppen

Oakland Mills

Coach: Alex Douyon (first year)

2019 record: 1-3, 7-7

Returning starters: 6

Top players: Senior Remi Rollins (MF); juniors Lilly Smull (D/MF) and Emily Herrera (D/MF); sophomore Kaity Browne (A); freshman Olivia Rollins (MF/A).

Coach’s corner: “The biggest determinant of success for us will be overall enjoyment and taking steps in the right direction every day. We’ve been working hard and the girls are showing they are learning and having fun getting to know myself as the new coach.” — head coach Alex Douyon

Reservoir

Coach: Phil Ranker

2019 record: 2-4-3, 5-6-3

Returning starters: 11

Top players: Seniors Kat Parris (MF), Lizzie Dudzinski (GK) and Monica Prince (MF); juniors Karis Turner (A), Gabbie Chapman (D), Margot Laughner (D) and Sophie Davidson (MF).

Coach’s corner: “Since we had an outrageous number of injuries last year, I actually have 11 girls back who have previously started many games at Reservoir. I believe experience will be a huge factor this year given how little actual field time we will have given the challenges with weather and turf availability. Hopefully the experience that we have gained playing through adversity in the past will help us with all we are dealing with this season.” — head coach Phil Ranker

River Hill girls soccer coach Brian Song gives instructions to his team during a scrimmage in the fall.
River Hill girls soccer coach Brian Song gives instructions to his team during a scrimmage in the fall. (Doug Kapustin, Baltimore Sun)

River Hill

Coach: Brian Song

2019 record: 6-2-1, 9-6-1

Returning starters: 6

Top players: Seniors Samantha Smedley (MF) and Madeline Florenzo (MF); juniors Caroline Duffy (GK), Ara Omitowoju (A), Kaitlyn Heitzman (D), Erin Regan (MF) and Erin Devine (D).

Coach’s corner: “I am glad for the kids, especially in my senior class, that we can have a season. … There’s a little bit of worry and nervousness, but it’s great to see everyone out there. Hopefully they enjoy the season. They’ve been doing online school, on the computer for six or seven hours a day, so this will be really good for them.” — head coach Brian Song

Wilde Lake's Gia Johnson fights for the ball in the 3A girls soccer state semifinal game against Chesapeake.
Wilde Lake's Gia Johnson fights for the ball in the 3A girls soccer state semifinal game against Chesapeake. (Bill Ryan For Baltimore Sun Media/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Wilde Lake

Coach: Kristyn Neubauer (first year)

2019 record: 5-4-1, 12-5-1

Returning starters: 6

Top players: Seniors Aicha Wilson (MF), Jillian Ingram (MF) and Olivia Lancaster (D); juniors Gia Johnson (A), Ashlyn Bonner (D) and Hannah Lowry (GK).

Coach’s corner: “[Our] biggest strength this season is our camaraderie. The players truly like each other and it shows. They push each other to be better, lift each other up and trust that they’ll each do their job.” — head coach Kristyn Neubauer

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