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Talent turnover makes for crowded Howard County boys soccer race

In terms of player turnover, Howard County boys soccer finds itself in a rather unique position heading into this fall.

Of the 15 players that made first-team all-county a season ago, 13 were seniors. The two holdovers — River Hill's Mike Heitzmann and Reservoir's Kyle Saunderson — represent the smallest returning group of top-level talent in the county in the last 10 years.

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Yet, as Atholton coach Roch DeFrances points out, for all the holes left by last year's standouts that have moved on to the college ranks, the number of quality reinforcements waiting in the wings is arguably better than ever.

"It goes in cycles … every so often you have those senior-heavy years around the county. Last year was one of those years," said DeFrances, who enters his 18th season as Atholton's coach and is one of the county's longest tenured at the position. "But what's changing, or different maybe about this year, is that there is a boatload of young talent in place that's ready to take over. I can't remember a time when so many different teams were capable of reloading like this with guys ready to step right in and not really lose a beat."

It's because of that reload, instead of rebuild, mentality that three of last year's top five county squads — River Hill, Reservoir and Oakland Mills — are all looking like contenders once again despite each losing two or more all-county players.

River Hill earned itself a share of last year's county championship with Marriotts Ridge, and went on to capture the program's first regional title since 2007. Now, with six starters back and some strong reinforcements joining the program, the Hawks are eyeing even bigger things.

"I think you can definitely tell this preseason that there is a mentality where the guys want to kind of pick up where last year's team left off," River Hill coach Matt Shagogue said. "A lot of contributions down the stretch came from young guys and they have come back ready to take on the challenge."

Having Heitzmann back in the fold is certainly a great place to build from for River Hill. The rising junior is the county's leading returning goal scorer after registering 10 goals last fall. Also back is Tomas Potts, a three-year starter in goal who surrendered the least goals in the county a season ago (10).

Reservoir lost the heart and soul of its midfield unit from the last couple years with the graduation of Emilio Rodas. In his stead, though, the leadership responsibilities will be passed along to Saunderson, who is a four-year varsity guy that anchors the Gators' lineup in the middle of the field. He, along with a powerful offensive attack that includes returners Carvell Akuffo (11 points in 2013), Serigne Gueye (13) and David Harris (13), will be trying to make it a seamless transition for new coach Josh Sullivan.

Sullivan, who led the girls soccer team at Reservoir for the last six years and takes over for Reg Hahne, says his familiarity with the program will hopefully allow his guys to hit the ground running.

"There really aren't that many changes … a lot of my spin on things is similar to those that are already in place because the (boys and girls) programs have been set up and run very similarly," Sullivan said. "I'm also extremely lucky to have 12 or 13 seniors that have played in the program and have that experience where I'm able to have full trust in them."

Oakland Mills, meanwhile, is coming off back-to-back winning seasons and last year's squad made the 2A state semifinals. The Scorpions bring back six starters from that team, including John Caldwell (21 points in 2013) and N'diaye Hymad (18).

It's not just a three-team race, though. In fact, there are several other teams with the ability to finish in the top half of the standings, including a Mt. Hebron program that went an impressive 7-3-1 in county play a season ago and was a penalty shootout away from winning a regional championship.

Also knocking on the door is a Glenelg program that had an outstanding junior varsity team in 2013 and a Long Reach group that has a couple of the most dynamic scorers in the area — Josh Fawole and Quentin Valiente — coming off a season where they combined for 33 points.

Marriotts Ridge, which finished as co-county champions alongside River Hill a season ago, and Centennial are a pair of perennial powers that will be down a little this fall but are still capable of competing with the upper tier.

"There are no easy games in the county, and just as important as finishing strong is starting well. There are a lot of big games right away and, with so many teams so close in talent, teams are going to find out where they stand very quickly," Mt. Hebron coach Mike Linsenmeyer said.

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Linsenmeyer's Vikings are among the teams with a busy first week that features as many as five games in six days for some squads, including a pair of county contests.

The regular season for public schools officially begins on Sept. 5, but the majority of the county's teams will start the following day in one of the many tournaments around the state. Here's a look at each of the Howard County teams (For expanded capsules, visit us online at howardcountytimes.com).

*2013 First-team all-county; #2013 Second-team all-county

Atholton

Coach: Roch DeFrances

2013 record: 5-5-1 county, 7-7-1 overall

Top players: Seniors David Choi (G/D), Ryan Hess (D), Chris Johnson (MF) and Brady Rossiter (D); juniors Noah Bathras (G) and Dylan Royalty (F).

What you need to know: In addition to the graduation of the team's top two scorers — Joe Tolson and Christian Brosnan — and all-county defender Jack Jacobs, the Raiders also took a couple unexpected hits during the offseason. Two injuries, one player that transferred out of the program and another player changing sports has left the team with less experience than originally anticipated.

The good news is that, while young, this is still a team with plenty of promise. Five players with extensive experience return, including Royalty to lead the offense and Bathras to lead the defense.

"We still have a lot of talent, just less experience than we had planned on," DeFrances said. "It may take half a season to get it all worked out, but these young guys are very capable."

DeFrances says he expects the offense to be the team's strength, with lots of speed up top. The wild card will be how fast the defense, which does feature two seniors in front of Bathras in goal, comes together.

Centennial

Coach: Jim Zehe

2013 record: 6-4-1, 9-6-1

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Top players: Senior Tommy Wang (MF); juniors Savya Konkalmatt (MF) and Michael Merkey (MF).

What you need to know: The Eagles are in rebuilding mode as just three starters are back. The new look is the result of the graduation of a large senior class, combined with junior Tom Brown shifting his focus solely to basketball and sophomore Noah Taylor missing the entire season due to shoulder surgery.

What it means is that there's plenty of opportunity for new faces to make a name for themselves. In the early going, Zehe says that the team's strength will be in the midfield because that's "where we have the most experience and versatility."

Included in that midfield unit is Wang, who Zehe says has "excellent one-on-one skills and vision," Konkalmatt as a central midfielder and Merkey to provide some versatility.

Centennial has produced a winning overall record each of the last five seasons.

Glenelg

Coach: Andy Shearer

2013 record: 4-5-2, 6-6-2

Top players: Seniors Nick Messina (D), Jason Mitchell (D/MF) and Nick Stamatakis (F); juniors Dylan DuBeau (D), Alex Frith (MF) and Amanuel Rizk (MF); sophomores Ramzy Ahmed (F) and Brady Barajas (MF).

What you need to know: The Gladiators have been on the cusp of becoming one of the county's top-tier teams for several years, including back-to-back seasons of finishing at .500 overall. As the team looks to take that next step, it will be relying heavily on a young core this fall.

The good news is that the leadership from Messina, Stamatakis and DeBeau, all hard workers according to Shearer, should go a long way. They will be surrounded mostly by standouts from the program's junior varsity squad that went 9-0-2 a season ago. Rizk and Ahmed in particular should provide a nice boost offensively and could turn the team's offense into an area of strength.

"I like our attack this year," Shearer said. "We have a lot of players willing to get forward and I hope to put in more goals this year."

Hammond

Coach: Brett Cutler

2013 record: 1-7-3, 2-11-3

Top players: Seniors Nick Borsh (F), Orlando Canales (D), Sungjun Hong (MF/F), Chris Mantsch (D) and Ben Whong (D); juniors Pierre Hyppolite (D), Darren Ketchum (MF) and Josh Lee (D).

What you need to know: The record didn't tell the whole story for the Golden Bears last fall, as the team had two double-overtime losses, three ties and five other one-goal games. So this fall, in an effort to swing some of those decisions and score more goals, coach Cutler is switching things up.

"I would traditionally try to start from the back and build out. In previous years, I'd even move my better, older and more experienced players back to defense," he said. "This year I've tried to go the opposite direction. I think that we're going to take a much more offensive mindset and that is reflected in the personnel that are playing in the midfield and forward areas."

Borsh, Hong and Ketchum will all be asked to help out in the scoring department, while the team's other senior leaders Canales, Mantsch and Whong will likely push up at times as well. Hyppolite and Lee were both pulled up from JV during the season last year and will be asked to take bigger roles.

In goal, sophomores Jeremy Stewart and Simon Bradford, along with freshman Bryce Kohlheim will be competing for the starting spot to replace second-team all-county goalie Scott Lastova.

Howard

Coach: Nils Schroeder

2013 record: 1-9-1, 2-10-1

Top players: Seniors Gavin Boyer (F), Scott Bruner (MF), Jordan Griggs (F), Kyle Lowenkron (MF), Marley Reyna (D) and Brad Zulick (MF); sophomore Matt Flynn (MF).

What you need to know: There's been a fair amount of buzz around the Lions this preseason as potentially being one of the county's most improved squads. The key will be how quickly coach Schroder will be able to get his mix of returning standouts and talented newcomers to gel on the field.

The midfield trio of Bruner, Lowenkron and Zulick, all team captains, has each been part of the varsity program now for at least three years. They help make up the team's backbone.

"Our midfield should be pretty strong this year and be able to control a lot of the pace of the games," Schroder said.

Howard opens with four straight county games against teams that finished .500 or better a season ago.

Long Reach

Coach: John Horner

2013 record: 2-9-0, 3-11-0

Top players: Senior Nathan Kundrat (D); juniors Josh Fawole# (MF) and Quentin Valiente (F); sophomores Chris Flowers, Ian McCarthy and Jack Toohey.

What you need to know: Over the past five years, the Lightning have won a combined three county games. If everything clicks this year, with a talented group in place, there's the potential to finally turn the corner.

Six starters are back and Horner says they are already helping speed up the learning curve for the team's players that are new to the varsity level. The offensive tandem of Fawole and Valiente, along with Kundrat on defense, will serve as the team's core.

Fawole made second-team all-county last season, while Valiente was a member of the U16 champion Baltimore Celtics club team.

Keeping its opponents off the scoreboard may ultimately be the key for Long Reach and new goalie Jonathan Antes will look to help out in that department.

Marriotts Ridge

Coach: Kevin Flynn

2013 record: 10-1-0, 14-2-0

Top players: Seniors Sam Deitemyer (F) and Patrick Schubert (D); junior TJ McIntyre (MF); sophomore Simon Klementsen (MF).

What you need to know: The Mustangs' stretch of consecutive seasons among the county's top three teams is in serious jeopardy this fall, as the team brings back just three starters. Two players left to play Academy and the rest graduated.

What particularly will hurt in the early going is the fact that the team lost 91 percent of its scoring from a season ago (51 of 56 goals). That means more pressure on the defense and the team's midfield this fall.

On the positive side, there are still talented players on the roster. Schubert and McIntyre are returning starters that were elected by their peers as captains. "They have shown great leadership through the spring and summer," Flynn said.

Overall, the midfield will be where the team is strongest. "We have depth on the wings and strong technical players in the center," Flynn said.

The team also returns a pair of goalies who saw significant time during the 2013 season.

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Mt. Hebron

Coach: Mike Linsenmeyer

2013 record: 7-3-1, 11-4-1

Top players: Seniors Thomas Hedges (MF) and Alec Vaughn# (D); juniors Atticus Cooke (F), Lucas Oh (D) and Patrick Palin (MF); sophomore Johnny Linsenmeyer# (MF).

What you need to know: The Vikings ended up losing in penalty kicks to River Hill in last season's regional championship game. With seven guys back with starting experience from that squad, coach Linsenmeyer says he realistically thinks this year's team could be even better.

With key players spread in each area of the field, Linsenmeyer says the only issue is figuring out the best combinations. "We have quality players all over, we're just still figuring out where they are going to play in terms of creating a balanced team," he said. "The kids are working hard, though, and I've been pleased with how we're looking."

Vaughn is a returning all-county defender, while Johnny Linsenmeyer burst onto the scene as a freshman to make all-county as well last fall.

There are stern tests right off the bat, with Mt. Hebron participating in the Catonsville Invitational Tournament Sept. 6 and then squaring off against Fallston two days later. County tests against Atholton and Marriotts Ridge follow to give the Vikings five games in six days.

Oakland Mills

Coach: Don Shea

2013 record: 6-4-1, 12-5-1

Top players: Seniors Alex Asifo (D), Jay Bhylet (MF), John Caldwell# (MF) and Paulo Tudela (D); juniors Mike Ahumada-Murillo (D), Javier Avetrani (MF) and N'diaye Hymad (F).

What you need to know: The Scorpions built momentum throughout the season last fall and went on to knock off Marriotts Ridge in the playoffs en route to winning the region championship. While there are several key pieces that graduated, including leading scorer Hans Kouame (42 points) and top defender Eli Phillips, there are still 14 returning lettermen.

Even better is that of the team's players with starting experience, there are seven of them that have been in those roles for at least two years. Caldwell and Hymad are each established scorers that finished among the county's top 10 in points a season ago.

Overall there are 62 players in the program between varsity and junior varsity.

"We should be good in a very well balanced league this year," Shea said.

Reservoir

Coach: Josh Sullivan

2013 record: 7-2-2, 11-3-2

Top players: Seniors Carvel Akuffo (F), Stephen Bork (D), Brian Freeman (D), Serigne Gueye (MF), David Harris# (MF), Kyle Saunderson* (D) and Scott Weinheimer (D); junior Christian Alfaro (MF).

What you need to know: With a dozen seniors on the roster with varsity experience, first-year coach Josh Sullivan says, "camaraderie has been great to start the year."

Akuffo, Gueye, Harris and Saunderson are a senior quartet that has established themselves as the leaders on and off the field. They each have at least three years of varsity experience. In all, there are eight starters returning for the Gators.

"I love the balance that we have on this team," Sulllivan said. "We have top players on all parts of the field that we have confidence in."

The defense in particular should be an area of strength considering that Bork, Freeman, Saunderson and Weinheimer are all experienced players with loads of talent. On the other side of the ball, the attack brings back three of its top four scorers from a season ago.

Reservoir's opening county contest against River Hill will be huge.

"I'm actually really happy that we get that game right away. For us, considering how the season ended against them in the playoffs last year, it's going to be a great test," Sullivan said. "I think, for us, it will be a stepping stone regardless of the outcome."

River Hill

Coach: Matt Shagogue

2013 record: 10-1-0, 16-2-0

Top players: Seniors Jay Bucci (D), Ben Peters (D) and Addison Testoff (MF); juniors Mike Heitzmann* (F), Tomas Potts (G) and Luke Turney (F).

What you need to know: It was a return to the top last fall for the Hawks, who had their best season since 2007. Coach Matt Shagogue is hoping the bar has been raised and that this year's group is ready to maintain the momentum and go even further on the state level.

The defense in particular is a lock-down unit featuring the county's top goalie in terms of goals against last year (Potts) and two of the team's captains — Peters and Bucci.

Testoff, who had seven points last season and has had a great preseason according to Shagogue, is the team's other captain. Offensively, Heitzmann returns after leading the team with 21 points as a sophomore. Turney will also be a valuable asset offensively, as he moves from left back to forward.

"We trust Tommy and the backs so much that hopefully we can push up and take some more chances offensively," Shagogue said. "This is a team that is built around defending, so the key will be getting some goals for them to work with."

The team's additions of senior Robert Dass and sophomore Gianni Gupta should make immediate impacts.

Wilde Lake

Coach: Jon Robinson

2013 record: 1-10-0, 1-13-1

Top players: Seniors Brian O'Brochta (MF), Sami Fitean (F), Dennis Perez (D) and Chris Rolan (MF); juniors Chris Johnson (MF) and Patrick Riley (G).

What you need to know: There are 16 kids back from last year's roster, nine of which saw significant time. Overall there are 10 seniors on the team and they are all itching to make up for what was a down season a year ago.

"These kids have been through it enough that they are hungry," Robinson said. "Practice sessions have been great and when we push them, they want to be pushed more."

The biggest loss from last season was all-county defender Zach Smythe. In his absence those leadership responsibilities have been handed off to Perez, who has plenty of experience. Riley, a junior who has been starting games since he was a freshman, brings valuable experience to the goalie position as well. He was voted as a captain by his teammates.

The other captains are O'Brochta and Johnson, who are both three-year varsity guys as well. Fitean is a big target that will be making the transition from defense to offense.

Wilde Lake opens the season in the Arundel Invitational with games against North County and Arundel.

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Chapelgate Christian Academy

Coach: Jason Bennett

2013 record: 6-6-1 MIAA C Conference, 7-9-1

Top players: Seniors Tommy Carlson (G), Jesse Cherry (D) and Kunle Soniregun (MF); sophomore Marc Little (F).

What you need to know: The Yellowjackets hovered around .500 for much of last fall and are looking to make the next step with a roster made up of 80 percent returning players.

Bennett says the strides have been evident this preseason.

"Much of the leadership (from last season) remains in place. We are watching as our boys are beginning to have confidence, take pride in their positions and work as a team," Bennett said.

Chapelgate doesn't select captains, but Cherry (senior sweeper )and Carlson (senior goalie) are two of the leaders that have emerged. On the other end of the field, Soniregun and Little will be asked to spark the offense.

Among the team's biggest stretches will be at the end of September into the beginning of October where it will face league foes Key, Glenelg Country and Indian Creek in succession. Key and Indian Creek shared the MIAA C Conference regular season title last fall.

Glenelg Country School

Coach: Hal Kenney

2013 record: 5-6-2 MIAA C Conference, 5-8-2

Top players: Seniors Cole Chason (D), Will Davis (MF) and Griffin Keane (F); juniors Reid Chaconas (MF), Sam Smith (MF) and Eric Wootton (G).

What you need to know: After a couple consecutive years not finding the win column, Glenelg Country had Kenny take over last fall and immediately turn things around. The Dragons made it all the way to the postseason, losing a one-goal game to Chapelgate in the MIAA C Conference quarterfinals.

Now, with a solid core returning, the expectations are to build upon that success.

"With the commitment, discipline and dedication that all the boys have demonstrated, it gives them another opportunity to experience success," Kenny said.

In addition to the continued development of the varsity squad, the Dragons have also added a JV program this fall. Ryan Hellem, who helped out with boys varsity team last year, is taking over as coach of that group.

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