Molly Milani always pictured herself one day coaching varsity field hockey at Glenelg.
The former All-County standout and 2015 Glenelg graduate began coaching with the Warhawks field hockey club while in college and quickly realized how rewarding it was. So naturally, when she took over the Gladiators’ JV program in 2019, Milani felt like she was on the path toward one day achieving her dream.
Opportunity, however, has a way of altering even the best-laid plans.
This spring, Milani is indeed embarking on her first year as a varsity coach in Howard County. Only instead of it being at Glenelg, she is leading a rival Marriotts Ridge program that she has spent much of the last decade trying her best to defeat.
“It’s definitely a change, one that I really hadn’t even thought much about until [former Marriotts Ridge varsity coach] Stacie Gado approached me following her decision to retire. I just kind of figured it would always be Glenelg for me,” said Milani, who developed a relationship with Gado after joining Marriotts Ridge as a teacher in 2019 — the same season she started coaching at Glenelg. “I couldn’t be more excited to be here, though, and the kids have been amazing these first couple weeks, really embracing me and my coaching style and the expectations I have for the program. For as tough as it is being a first-year varsity coach during such a different kind of season with so many challenges, this group has made things so much easier so far.”
Having helped Glenelg to county championships in each of her three seasons as a starter in high school, along with a state championship during her sophomore year in 2012, Milani is no stranger to the pressure of expectations. And, with Marriotts Ridge coming off the program’s first state championship in 2019, there are certainly some big shoes to fill.
She’s doing her best to take it all in stride, noting that there are just three returning starters — Leah Bakhtiar, Julie Lawler and Kaylie Savage — and plenty of new faces working into prominent roles. Despite the relative inexperience, there’s plenty of potential.
“We have a very dynamic group of players who each bring their own areas of strength, so putting the pieces together will create a solid unit on the field,” Milani said.
Milani isn’t the only former All-County performer joining the varsity coaching ranks this year and going behind enemy lines. Mt. Hebron 2016 graduate Natalie Fyock, a three-year starter who helped the Vikings to a county title in 2013, takes over the head coaching duties at Centennial.
Across all sports, there are few Howard County rivalries more intense than Mt. Hebron and Centennial.
“I’ve grown up with Mt. Hebron, and I’ve definitely realized that rivalries stick with you. Mt. Hebron and Centennial was always great,” said Fyock. “But rivalry or not, this is an amazing opportunity with another great school and program that I’m thrilled to now be a part of. In a way, it’s exciting to be on the other side of it now.”
With the way the field hockey divisions are set up this spring, however, Fyock won’t get the opportunity to coach against her former team right away. The six schools that do not have JV teams because of low participation numbers — Atholton, Centennial, Hammond, Long Reach, Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake — are grouped together and will play one another twice. Then the remaining six programs — Glenelg, Howard, Marriotts Ridge, Mt. Hebron, Reservoir and River Hill — make up the other division and will square off in home-and-away matchups against one another as well.
That means Milani, conversely, gets two matchups against her alma mater.
“The crazy thing is that between JV or club, I’ve probably coached every one of the girls on Glenelg’s varsity this year at some point. That’s just another level, I guess, to an already intense rivalry,” Milani said.
Glenelg coach Nikki Trunzo agreed that there’s another dynamic now to the already highly intense game.
“I mean it’s never about the coaches when we play Marriotts Ridge. It’s a rivalry because of how competitive the two teams always are. But Molly is like my dear friend and she made such a huge impact on our JV program when she was here, there’s a connection now that will add a little extra to it when we play them,” Trunzo said. “Like I know a few of the girls up from her JV team are already talking about that first game and getting to see her again and trying to beat her.”
As a team, Glenelg has won eight of the last 10 county championships. But for the program’s lofty standards, 2019 was a down campaign with a 5-2 mark against league opponents and 7-8 record overall.
With six starters back and two of the best goalies in the county — senior Rachel Barker and sophomore Hala Silverstein — the Gladiators have the pieces to compete now and in the future. The challenge becomes, as is the case for many programs this spring, figuring out how much emphasis to put on winning during the shortened season.
“There’s the competitor part that wants to win and set the goal of going a perfect 10-0. But there’s also a big part of this that is simply about just getting the kids back together as part of a team and out having fun,” Trunzo said. “I know I had to take a step back and realize that it’s more about the kids well-being at first and that I have to add intensity as we go. I do think once the games kick in, things will start to normalize a bit.”
Defending county-champion Mt. Hebron will certainly have a huge say in the championship race, as the Vikings bring back seven starters. While defending Player of the Year and leading scorer Esha Shah graduated, there are still four players returning — Mia Holland (14 points), Ashley Unkenholz (13), Michelle Pak (11) and Haley Kampert (9) — who ranked among the county’s top 30 scorers in 2019.
“[It is] a good mix of experience, allowing the new players to gain confidence as they learn,” coach Jeannette Ireland said.
River Hill will be incredibly dangerous as well, coming off a season in which the program finished in a tie for second in the standings and having 10 players with starting experience back in the fold. Of the returners, sophomore midfielder Puja Nanjappa is looking to continue her star trajectory after becoming the first freshman to make first team All-County since 2014. Lindsey Miller is also back after making second team All-County as a junior.
Among the other teams that are eligible to win a county title this spring, Howard will be anchored by senior All-County honorable mention goalie Rachel Murphy and Reservoir has eight starters back.
A county divided
As it pertains to winning a county title, only the schools with JV teams are eligible this spring to hoist the trophy as there will be no crossover competition between the two divisions.
Division A (with JV): Glenelg, Howard, Marriotts Ridge, Mt. Hebron, Reservoir, River Hill
Division B: Atholton, Centennial, Hammond, Long Reach, Oakland Mills, Wilde Lake
Teams in each division will play one another twice — once at home and once away. There will be no season-ending tournament like there is for soccer and volleyball, with the county champion being determined by the team in Division A with the best record.
Milani says she likes the idea of being able to play every team twice.
“It gives you time to make adjustments after the first game and then get a chance to see how much you have improved from the first matchup when you play again later in the season,” Milani said.
For traditional middle-tier programs like Atholton and Centennial, which traditionally play against every county team once during the regular season, there are positives and negatives to the grouping.
“I’m one that likes to try and rise to the challenge and play the best of best. So that part is disappointing,” Fyock said. “But with me being hired at Centennial two days before the season started, this gives us a little cushion to get everything together. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. We can focus on our game, our strengths and establishing how we are going to move forward from here as a program.”
All things considered, Atholton coach Martie Dyer believes her team is where it needs to be.
“We have some strong players, but we still aren’t at the level of those top programs,” she said. “I mean last year we only won one game, so this is an opportunity for us to build for the future and I’m happy they decided to do the divisions like this.”
Eye protection has been mandatory for all high school field hockey players since 2011, but thanks to an adjustment to the National Federation of State High School Associations rule book last summer, that is no longer the case. Athletes will now have the freedom to choose whether they wear goggles or not.
It’s a cosmetic change that will visually take some getting used to, both literally and figuratively.
“It will be weird seeing the girls without googles this year,” River Hill coach Shelly Chamness said. “However, I haven’t seen an injury that googles would have prevented and it will allow the girls to wear masks if they want without having to worry about fogging up the goggles [or athletic glasses].”
Wearing masks on the field during competition will be optional. That hasn’t stopped some programs, like Atholton, from internally making the decision to have players wear masks at all times during practices.
“We’re fortunate to be getting this chance to play again, so I just don’t want to take any chances,” Dyer said.
Among the other noticeable rule changes will be playing games in four 15-minute quarters as opposed to 30-minute halves.
Here’s a closer look at each of the team’s ahead of the first play date of the season on March 8:
2019 record: 1-6 county, 1-12 overall
Coach: Martie Dyer, 15th season overall
Top players: Seniors Amina Abdulhana (D), Summer Hughes (D) and Madison McCabe (MF); junior Lauren Donaldson (MF); sophomore Bella Konrad (F).
Opening whistle: The 2019 win-loss record was a bit deceiving for the Raiders, as the team lost five games by three goals or fewer. Still, after scoring just seven goals offensively, it’s going to be a building process. With no JV program, Dyer says there are over 20 players on the roster and there is a mix of experience and fresh faces. Defense was the team’s strength a year ago, with Hughes helping anchor that unit. Her experience, alongside fellow seniors Abdulhana on defense and McCabe in the midfield, provides a solid foundation to push forward from.
2019 record: 3-5, 3-12
Coach: Natalie Fyock, first season
Top players: Seniors Lily Sullivan (MF) and Bridget Thompson (G); juniors Sarah Acuri (F) and Meghan Creel (D); sophomores Abby Cudzilo (F) and Haley Harris (MF); freshman Helen Baldy (MF).
Opening whistle: Fyock has been impressed with the leadership of the returners, helping make her transition to the coaching ranks smooth despite being hired just two days before the season started. The midfield, which includes an experienced senior in Sullivan (three goals, assists in 2019), should be the team’s backbone and features some of the roster’s “best communicators and that shows when they move the ball across the field.” Centennial has a strong chance to achieve the program’s first winning county record since 2016.
2019 record: 5-2, 7-8
Coach: Nikki Trunzo, 10th season overall
Top players: Seniors Sammie Anderson (F), Caitlyn Baehr (MF), Rachel Barker (G), Chloe Birckhead (MF), Phebe Frost (D) and Sarah Kang (MF/D); sophomore Hala Silverstein (G).
Opening whistle: There are six returning starters for the Gladiators and they are all seniors, something that Trunzo said is really helping with maintaining a level of “intensity” during practices thus far. The team’s strengths are its deep midfield, which includes three seniors and a talented freshman in Kam Henson, along with a stout defense anchored by a pair of talented goalies. Barker made first-team All-County in 2019 and is likely going to split time with talented sophomore Silverstein. Offensively, Kang was the team’s leading scorer as a junior with 18 points. Another freshman to keep an eye on up top is AJ Eyre.
2019 record: 4-2, 8-5
Coach: Courtney Abell, second season
Top players: Seniors Aubrae Clark (D), Lizzy Hughes (MF/F), Julia Moyer (D); Sophomores Lily Deblasio (G), Brianna Donato (D/MF), Hannah Haber (MF) and Lauren Johnson (F).
Opening whistle: Coming off a turnaround season, including the most county wins in the last decade, the Golden Bears bring back eight starters and nine seniors. Just as important will be the underclassmen, with at least four sophomores and four incoming freshman all expected to make impacts. The midfield unit is the team’s strength with sophomores Haber and Donato providing versatility around the established Hughes, who finished fourth in the county as a junior with 38 points (15 goals, 8 assists). Abell said the team is “lucky that we have such hardworking athletes that have done the work during the pandemic and off season.”
2019 record: 4-3, 7-6
Coach: Courtney Sprissler, third season
Top players: Seniors Tori McArthur (MF), Rachel Murphy (G) and Madison Rozgonyi (MF); junior Gabby Rabold (F).
Opening whistle: There may only be three starters back for the Lions, but Sprissler expects her group to not miss a beat. “We created new plays that work their strengths and are excited to see where it takes us,” she said. There’s a lot of experience leading the team’s attack, including Rabold combing off a sophomore season where she registered 10 points. Murphy returns in goal to lead the defense after securing six shutouts as a junior and being named as an honorable mention All-County selection.
2019 record: 2-4, 4-8
Coach: Kevin Broadus, first season
Top players: Seniors Daryan Almond (G), Skylar Kohler (MF), Hannah Menasria (F) and Kaydence Thompson (F).
Opening whistle: Broadus takes over as coach for a Long Reach program that has won multiple county games every year for the past decade. Kohler was the offensive leader last season, scoring 11 of the team’s 19 goals on the year and finishing with 24 points overall as a junior. Allmond will anchor the defense in her second year starting in goal.
2019 record: 5-2-1, 12-6-1
Coach: Molly Milani, first season
Top players: Seniors Leah Bakhtiar (F/MF), Julie Lawler (MF), Hannah Parsons (D) and Kaylie Savage (MF); sophomores Sophia Baxter (MF/D), Maisy Clevenger (F) and Mia Gladstein (MF/D).
Opening whistle: Coming off the program’s first state title, there are a lot of moving pieces for the Mustangs as Milani takes over as head coach. But she says the chemistry, even for a relatively young team, has been remarkable in the early going. “We have a very dynamic group of players who each bring their own areas of strength,” Milani said. Savage is the team’s leading returning scorer after registering 10 points in 2019 and is part of a highly-skilled midfield unit that will be responsible for providing leadership and tying everything together. The sophomore class on varsity, which features eight players, makes up nearly half the roster.
2019 record: 6-1, 11-4
Coach: Jeannette Ireland, 30th season
Top players: Seniors Ashley Cursey (D), Mia Holland (F), Haley Kampert (MF), Michelle Pak (F) and Ashley Unkenholz (F); junior Paige Leitzel (MF).
Opening whistle: Four players are back that registered nine or more points in 2019 for the county-champion Vikings. In total there are seven returning starters. Kampert is a two-time first-team All-County selection, once as a midfielder and once as a defender, and Pak made second team All-County as a junior. For as good as the offense was last season, scoring 48 goals, it was actually the team’s defense that ranked as the county’s best. Mt. Hebron allowed just 14 goals in 15 games with seven shutouts.
2019 record: 0-6, 4-9
Coach: Kristen Vance, 11th season overall
Top players: Seniors Hillary Nguyen (D) and Rebecca Smelkinson (D); junior Katie Oliver (G); sophomore Abigail Reed (MF).
Opening whistle: With a large group of players new to the team, several of whom are new to the sport, Vance says it is a rebuilding year for the program. But she also adds that she is excited about many of the new faces, including soccer converts Ella Novak and Riley O’Brien to go along with junior Kylie Tracy. All three play lacrosse. As for the returners, the bulk of the experience is positioned in the backfield with Nguyen and Smelkinson anchoring the defense in front of Oliver. Reed picked up a couple assists as a freshman and will take on an even larger role in the midfield this year.
2019 record: 1-6, 4-10
Coach: Megan Maloney, second season
Top players: Seniors Isabella Brown (G) and Caitlin Toler (D); juniors Kiersten Jewell (D), Riley Malwitz and Sophie Pereira (F); sophomores Sophie Chung (D), Bella Pereira (F) and Sarah Weitzman (MF).
Opening whistle: Although the bulk of the Gators’ key players are still just sophomores and juniors, the team returns eight starters from a season ago. Maloney says most of the girls have either played together on varsity or club and that the team’s success will hinge on utilizing that chemistry to have strong communication on the field. Although Reservoir won just once in county play in 2019, five of the six losses were by three goals or fewer.
2019 record: 5-2-1, 11-6-1
Coach: Shelly Chamness, 21st season overall
Top players: Seniors Quill Alewine (MF), Karmjit Barring (D), Lindsey Garnish (D) and Lindsey Miller (F); juniors Laura Mason (F), Claire Slade (F) and Allie Young (MF); sophomores Jacelyn Baker (G), Puja Nanjappa (MF) and Maddie Vasilios (MF).
Opening whistle: The Hawks lost their top two scorers Quinn Kindbom and Ashlee Buscher to graduation, but there are plenty of other weapons returning for an offense that scored a county-best 57 goals in 2019 and made it to the 3A state semifinals. Slade (18 points), Miller (17), Vasilios (17) and Mason (13) all ranked among the top 30 scorers in the league a year ago. Chamness said the strength of this team is that there is talent and experience all over the field considering there are 10 players with starting experience on the roster.
2019 record: 5-2, 10-6
Coach: Ginger Kincaid, 44th season overall
Top players: Seniors Logan Bitner-Parish (G) and Victoria Stralka (F); juniors Bri Floyd (MF), Erin Hooper (D) and Meredith Sikora (D).
Opening whistle: The Wildecats have been steadily improving every year since posting a winless county record in 2016 and have been above .500 against county opponents each of the last two seasons. Kincaid said with just five starters back “we will probably have to adopt a new system to fit the strength of the players we have,” but adds that she is pleased with the skill level of the returners. Stralka is the team’s leading returning scorer after registering 30 points as a junior.