For all intents and purposes, on the heels of two straight losses that put the team under .500 for the regular season, Atholton's boys soccer team came limping into this year's 3A East region playoffs.
Instead of making any drastic changes tactically or personnel wise, though, Raiders' first-year coach Mike Bouman decided he was going to focus on something far simpler.
"After that last loss, on senior night against Wilde Lake, our entire talk was about attitude and mental preparation. Tactics are obviously important … but we basically told them that if we wanted to do something no one on this team has — win a region title — it was going to come down to the mental game," Bouman said. "We may have had a losing record, but playoffs are a new season and we weren't out yet. We just had to believe."
Over the last two weeks, Atholton has turned themselves and the entire region into believers by rolling off four straight wins — three on the road. The run was punctuated on Tuesday night by a convincing 3-0 victory over Centennial to capture the program's first region championship since 2009.
Dylan Royalty scored twice in the first half, Jordan Armstead added another late in the second, and the Raiders defense did the rest en route to the team's second shutout of the postseason.
"We had to travel like two-and-half hours to each game the (last) two rounds and we were like, 'You know what, we're going to have the crowd against us, we just have to play our game,' And we got used to it," Royalty said. "Road warriors, I guess that's what we're called now."
Atholton (8-9-1) advances into a Saturday 3A state semifinal match-up against Oakdale, which defeated Tuscarora, 2-1, for the 3A West crown.
The Raiders certainly wasted no time setting the tone against the Eagles on a rainy night in front of a large crowd on both sides of the field.
Just less than four minutes in, Royalty got himself free behind the Centennial back line off a through ball played by Jackson Hughes on the right side. The Raiders' leading scorer on the season then proceeded to slot the ball past Centennial's diving goalie EJ Fowler (3 saves) for a quick 1-0 lead.
"Getting a lead early on is huge because our defense … once they are in a zone, they are in a zone and they clear everything out," Royalty said.
Roughly nine minutes after his first goal, Royalty was at it again. This time it was a run down the left side, off a feed from Mike Smith, that got him the room he needed to operate.
Royalty proceeded to loft the ball from outside the box, over Fowler and into the net.
"Honestly, sometimes we've got to just kind of let Dylan do his thing. His pace on the ball, and off the ball, is just phenomenal," Bouman said. "You get him into space and he just puts them away."
Centennial had trouble generating the same kinds of chances it had gotten during its previous playoff games. An early point-blank look by Michael Merkey in the opening 10 minutes that went just wide right was at the top of the list, while Ammar Narmouq had a couple quality shots in the opening half as well.
Ultimately, though, Atholton's back line led by Max Bryant, Alex Berkeimer, Tom Jessell and Bryan Oh had an answer for everything. And, when something did get through, goalie Noah Bathras (7 saves) was there to clean things up.
Late in the second half, with just 10:48 left in regulation, the Raiders put some icing on the cake as Armstead got into the scoring act on a feed from Kim. The final three-goal margin of victory was the largest for the Raiders since defeating Reservoir in mid-October.
Afterward, when asked what the key to this year's playoff run has been, Bouman was quick to acknowledge his predecessor — long-time Atholton coach Roch DeFrances.
"I actually give Roch a ton of the credit, he worked with these guys a lot longer than I have really and kind of prepared them to get to this point," Bouman said. "It's not a season-long thing … to build a program to this point is something that takes years. Bringing up younger players, guys like Dylan, Nathan (Kim) and Noah who were all sophomores on varsity, that's what gives you the experience to do something like this."
In terms of what it means to now sit as the last Howard County boys soccer team alive in the playoffs, Royalty had a hard time containing his excitement.
"It feels amazing, I can't even explain it," Royalty said. "My first years we were out first, second round and then to just come out and go this far, I just want to keep it going."
Perry Hall 1, Howard 0 2OT
The Lions fell a game short of returning to the 4A state semifinals.
TO READ ALL ABOUT THIS GAME, CLICK HERE: http://bsun.md/1ShtjaB