River Hill senior Megan Chun talks about her team's expectations and more during the third week of the fall sports season on Aug. 23, 2017. (Tim Schwartz/Howard County Times video)
The statewide perception of Howard County girls soccer is that of excellence.
There have been 29 county teams crowned as state champions since the inception of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association state tournament in 1989 — more than one per season — with half the county schools represented among the best. Six teams in Maryland have won six or more state titles and three of them — Centennial, Glenelg and River Hill — call Howard County home. Hammond and Oakland Mills have both won multiple crowns.
In a state which has 4.3 percent of its players being recruited to play Division I, the fourth highest in the nation, according to the NCAA, Howard County has been a step above the rest in winning the ultimate prize.
"The Urbana coach said it best last year. He said that any team that made it through Howard County was forged in fire," said Centennial coach Steve Baxter, whose team lost 1-0 to the eventual-champion Hawks in a 3A state semifinal game last fall. "I thought that was an awesome quote because it is so true. We don't have many chances to have a game where you can relax. ... You can't just show up and win."
River Hill in 2014 was the last team to roll through league play without a tie or defeat, and that team capped its season with a 2-1 victory over Linganore in the 3A title game to capture its third straight championship and 10th overall in as many title-game appearance.
"I think the girls ultimately put the pressure on themselves," said River Hill coach Brian Song, who has led the program to seven state titles. "It's not a bad thing, in my opinion, for them to put the pressure on themselves to do better than the previous year because you always want to do a little bit better, whether you won the regional or state or whatever."
The Hawks went 7-2-2 in county play last year and after a 1-1 tie with Hammond on Oct. 21, they rolled through the playoffs with five straight wins and scored 11 goals while allowing three.
Peaking at the right time is nothing new and now River Hill enters the season with four players — senior's Megan Chun, Vic Tran and Carly Wetzel, and junior Brigette Wang — who earned all-county honors in 2016 and all 11 starters back in the fold.
"Last year we were just on a roll. The last about eight games we were just on it," Song said. "The only concern I have is to not get complacent. You have a big mark on your back because of where you finished last year. ... The expectations are a little bit heavy, especially because for my three captains, Megan, Vic and Carly, it's their senior year, They want to leave on a winning note, so they are taking a little bit of the pressure on themselves to do better."
Atholton was also the top seed in 2015 after a 9-2 league record but lost its first playoff game to visiting Long Reach, and coach Stephanie Stoutenborough said the goal is to change the narrative of early playoff exits.
"We've gotten knocked out of the playoffs early the past couple years, so these seniors, our goal is to make it further in regions and hopefully make it into states," she said. "It's always a tough county. In the past couple years, those lower teams aren't that low anymore."
Atholton has a talented squad with all-county players senior midfielders Victoria Huxtable and Adrienne Vaughn back to control the middle of the field. It has seven returning starters and Stoutenborough said her team is a step ahead of where it was at this time last year.
Stoutenborough said her team has traditionally won the time of possession battle but this year she hopes to turn more of that time with the ball into goals to avoid one-goal margins.
"We have Adrienne and [junior] Catalina [Lennon] up top, who just have the quickest foot skills I've ever seen coaching high school," she said. "They're both hungry to score. Anytime they get near the 18[-yard box] they're going to take you on and go to goal.
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"We have girls who can score goals this year and that's been something that we haven't really done well in the past. We're looking to win games more than 1-0 this year and stretch that margin a little bit. We have the girls to do it."
Baxter's Eagles are also listed among the contenders this fall after they won the 3A South regional title with a dominating 4-0 victory over Westminster in 2016. Their biggest key will be finding a way to replace the production from Jasmine McCree, who scored twice in the regional final and tied for the league lead with 36 points last year.
"Jasmine was a special player for us and she turned it on late last year for us and ended up scoring some big goals late in the season," said Baxter. "We need our center midfielders to produce more and obviously we've got a lot of young players. Some of them will be ready to step up and make a difference in games."
Baxter said the two players expected to step into goal-scoring roles are senior Kelli Dunagan, who will move to forward this season after scoring 10 goals in 2016, and junior Mckenna Griffin, who finished last year with 24 points to earn second-team all-county honors. Junior Ashley Deng, a second-team all-county player, is also switching positions from defense to midfield.
Reservoir, which finished 7-3-1 in county play last year, has only two seniors and could start as many as four freshmen. Coach Phil Ranker has an entire new midfield in place and replacing Player of the Year Kylie Toler will be a tough task.
Still, the Gators have the talent to compete for one of the top three spots in the league this fall.
"While we have a good amount of high-end experience coming back, the success and failure of our team this year will hinge largely on who can step up and fill the gaps that the graduating seniors left," Ranker said. "We have the talent and the ability if we play together and support one another to do some damage in the county."
Wilde Lake is expected to take another step forward and has arguably the best player in the county in junior Julianna Bonner, who scored a league-best 15 goals last year, at attack.
Howard has nine returning starters and a new coach in Laine Angle, Mt. Hebron has goals of finishing in the top third of the league standings, Glenelg returns all 11 starters and Marriotts Ridge brings back 10.
Here's an extended look at the 14 local programs:
2016 record: 9-1-1 county, 12-3-1 overall
Coach: Stephanie Stoutenborough
Top players: Seniors Victoria Huxtable (M), Adrienne Vaughn (F), Bryce Bathras (G) and Tina Rogers (D/M); juniors Catalina Lennon (M/F) and Delaney Ensor (D).
2016 record: 7-3-1, 13-4-1
Coach: Steve Baxter
Top players: Seniors Kelli Dunagan (F) and Claudia Pilcher (D); juniors Ashley Molz (D), Ashley Deng (D), McKenna Griffin (M) and Courtney McVicker (G/M); sophomore Ashley Bilger (G).
2016 record: 3-6-2, 7-8-2
Coach: Andy Shearer
Top players: Seniors Mariel Frith (D), Bethany Stewart (F) and Anna Callahan (G); junior Hope Grzebien (M) and Madalyn Nichols (F); sophomore Mia Stamatakis (M).