Two years ago, Howard boys lacrosse entered the 2015 season with the bitterness of a state championship-game defeat fresh in their players' minds. Hopes were high and Scott Bruner was expected to lead the Lions over the hump and into the record books as state champions.
That's exactly what Howard did, as a 19-0 season capped with a state title followed, and Bruner — the Howard County Player of the Year — led the way with a county-record 88 goals and a county-best 117 points.
The similarities for this year's Howard squad are eerily comparable. It's coming off a 2016 season that ended with a 9-3 loss to Severna Park in the 4A/3A title game, and the expectation this spring is that junior Mark Bruner, a first-team all-county attackman who scored 27 goals and had 29 assists a year ago, will be the Lions' leader offensively.
"I don't feel any deju vu as far as the team goes, but obviously Mark is very talented and definitely has a ton of ability to be successful on the field and help his team to victory. But as far as the team goes, it's a different dynamic, for sure," said Howard coach Jimmy Creighton, who has a 92-19 record in the last six years at the helm. "As a leader of our offense and kind of [being] a quarterback, per se, of our offense is something we're looking for him to do."
Bruner came into his own midway through last season, and it came at a perfect time considering the Lions' 3-3 record through six games. He helped his team go 11-2 in the final 13 contests, with both losses coming against Severna Park. He excelled in the postseason, as he scored four goals in the first half of a 14-4 state semifinal victory over Bel Air and two of his team's three goals in the state final.
"In the beginning, I was a little nervous starting as a sophomore. It was a little nerve-racking," Bruner said. "But midseason I got in the swing of things and knew I had to step up in order to be a good player and help our team out, and that's what switched it and sparked my good season."
This spring, Howard enters the season once again as favorites in what is expected to be a tight race for the county championship. It returns the county's top faceoff players from last year in junior Felix Knorr, who won more than 69 percent of his draws a year ago. Patrick Sutch, a 25-goal scorer in 2016, is also back in the mix for what could be one of the best attacks in the league.
Defensively, however, is where the Lions will need to fill holes. They graduated two-time first-team all-county goalie Collin McClelland and all-county defenders Josh Vetter and Vanden Vale, who were multiple-year starters.
Sophomore Ben Stephanos and senior Dayton Fisher will be key in helping whoever comes out of the three-player competition for the starting goalie spot, and the midfield has plenty of experience to help Howard remain atop the county.
Perhaps most importantly, though, is battling expectations. The Lions will not only have to face teams like Glenelg, Marriotts Ridge and River Hill, but the senior class will need to overcome the pressure that comes with three straight appearances in the state championship game.
"As coaches, we're not pressuring them at all. We just want them to be them and for them to play like they're capable of playing," Creighton said. "We don't want them to try and do too much, which I think a lot of young players, sometimes that's what happens and it gets them in trouble. But I think the biggest thing is for them to be themselves. ... If they're working hard then things should fall in place."
The Gladiators, who handed the Lions their only county defeat last year, are likely the top contender this season. They have a solid mix of youth and experience and are deep in the midfield, especially with sophomore Tyler Reiff, who started at Reservoir last season, now in the fold. They also return most of their defense from a year ago.
The biggest key, though, will be how quickly the group can jell, which was an issue last year.
"A determining factor for this year will be taking advantage of our opportunities that are presented to us through our style of play and cutting down on unforced errors," said Glenelg coach Josh Hatmaker. "I think that we a very balanced team that can create some match-up problems for people on both sides of the ball. Our young guys will need to play like upperclassmen and push our older guys on a daily basis."
Meanwhile, the Mustangs return a starting goalie — second-team all-county sophomore Colin Kelley (55.8 save percentage in 2016) — for the first time since 2014. They also return first-team all-county midfielder Lewy Anania (30 goals) and tons of depth in the middle of the field, but replacing five defensive starters will be the biggest determining factor to their success.
The Hawks, who went 10-1 in league play and shared last year's county title with Howard, graduated their entire defense, All-American Jake Freidman and both goalies. But they bring back one of the top faceoff players in the county in Derek Isaac, as well as several key attackmen in Max Friedman (19 goals) and Brendan McKenna (20 goals, 15 assists).
Centennial has one of the most talented groups of underclassmen in the league, with junior Jeremy Wilson (24 goals, 48 assists) and sophomore Stafford Smith (43 caused turnovers) back with senior Mason Smith (48 caused turnovers).
Mt. Hebron lost Player of the Year Casey DuBois in goal and returns only one starter from its state finals squad a year ago, but coach Mike McCarthy hopes his team's athleticism and offseason work will pay dividends come playoff time. Atholton returns five starters on offense and has the potential to be one of the league's top scoring units.
Oakland Mills brings back the front runner for this year's Player of the Year honor in left-side midfielder Evan Riss, an Ohio State commit who led the county in ground balls (163) and finished second in points (80) last year despite wielding the long pole.
In private schools, Glenelg Country, which reached the MIAA B Conference title game last year, is expected to be one of the top teams in the conference once again this spring with six starters back.
"There's a lot of parity out there. I think Glenelg is definitely going to be a formidable opponent for anyone in the county. They have a real good midfield and they have a bunch of guys back on defense," Creighton said. "Marriotts Ridge, River Hill — they all have good pieces returning and every one of those teams returns five, six, seven starters, and that's going to make every one of those teams tough to beat because they have experience."
There are three new coaches in the county this season, as Josh Thomas takes over for John Horner at Long Reach, Mychael Gaines replaces Jon Robinson at Wilde Lake and Tom Flynn takes the reigns from Paul Merena at Chapelgate.
Thomas, a 25-year-old police officer from New Jersey, was a varsity assistant last year with the Lightning and was a volunteer JV assistant in 2015.
"We're looking fairly decent for this year. A lot of guys can pass, catch and throw now," he said. "We're short on experience so we're looking to see what we can do with that. It's going to be a new team build, not only player-wise but coach-wise as well."
Gaines, who played high school lacrosse on the Eastern Shore, collegiately at CCBC and in the semi-professional American Lacrosse League, spent the last nine years as an official in the state but said the time was right for him to transition to coaching.
"I'm a fan of the sport and a student of the game," he said. "We have a great core group of midfielders and a prolific offense that is very tough and hard-nosed. My kids are awesome and they fight for me and I fight for them. ... Our goal to compete for a county title and a state championship."
Around the League
*2016 first-team all-county; #2016 second-team all-county
2016 record: 6-5 county, 8-7 overall
Coach: Erik Burnett
Returning starters: 5
Key players: Seniors Max Bryant (midfield), Rick Mooney (attack), Ben Gross (defense) and Edgar Batenga (goalie); junior Jake Peretti (attack); sophomore Keenan Long (midfield).
Coach's report: "This is a deeper team than we have ever had. There are talented, experienced players in reserve at every position who will have chances to contribute in important games. We have always had talented players, but this year we have them in numbers that should give us a new team dynamic."
2016 record: 6-5, 6-9
Coach: Nick Kellinger
Returning starters: 9
Key players: Senior Mason Smith (defense); juniors Jeremy Wilson# (attack), Thomas Thurmond (midfield) and Jack Schlossberg (goalie); sophomore Stafford Smith (defense); freshman Ty Sams (midfield).
Coach's report: "We are a young and hungry team with something to prove. We've learned many lessons about what it takes to deserve success. If we can continue to work hard and improve then we can compete with anyone. We can't get ahead of ourselves and have to be at our best in each and every game."
2016 record: 5-2, 6-9
Coach: Josh Hatmaker
Returning starters: 6
Key players: Seniors Noah Williamson (midfield), Ethan Forrest (attack), Connor Stanley (defense) and Brian Doughty (goalie); juniors Jordan Nalls (defense) and Chase Collier (midfield); sophomores Jonathan Spiropoulos (defense), Tyler Reiff (midfield), Eric Gruber (midfield).
Coach's report: "This is a very diverse group of kids in terms on their skills sets, which allows us to do some different things both offensively and defensively. We obviously have a wide-ranging mix of grades that have jelled quite well early in the season. The kids compete and push each other everyday play together very well as a unit. As a group they play fast and can play physical when they need to. We have lot of tough kids that will grind out the tough plays."
2016 record: 1-6, 3-10
Coach: Chris Reagle
Returning starters: 6
Key players: Seniors Dylan Sicca (goalie), Brendan Smith (attack), Thomas Cho (defense), Kyle Sinclair (defense) and Tony Pulsiriroth (attack); junior Nick Pekins# (midfield).
Coach's report: "We are really hoping to build off the momentum generated from last season. We return a strong core group of players and a couple guys who may be the best players we have had in a long time. Brendan Smith and Nick Pekins will combine to be an electric duo offensively, while Thomas Cho and Dylan Sicca provide leadership and experience on the defensive end. We will have a ton of depth and our season will really be determined by t n]he mental growth of our team in key situations."
2016 record: 6-1, 14-5
Coach: Jimmy Creighton
Returning starters: 6
Key players: Seniors Dayton Fisher (midfield), Michael Travisano (midfield) and Kendall Cooper (midfield); juniors Mark Bruner* (attack), Felix Knorr* (midfield) and Patrick Sutch (attack); sophomore Ben Stephanos (defense).
Coach's report: "Expectations don't really change but the challenges we face to get there certainly do year to year. We have some potential to make a run and to compete with the top teams in the county but we have work to do if we want to do that. We have had some special groups graduate the past few years so it is difficult to compare any team to those teams. The guys we have understand that we are simply looking to improve from day to day, practice to practice at this point in the year. If we can accomplish that we will put ourselves in a good position to compete."
2016 record: 0-7, 0-12
Coach: Josh Thomas
Returning starters: 5
Key players: Seniors Tyler Raines (defense), Michael Stokes (midfield) and Jaydan Kirby (attack); freshman Sam Levine (attack).
Coach's report: "In the 2017 Long Reach Lightning season, I plan to find strengths in the entire team and capitalize on them to pull through with a couple wins this year. Last year we were unable to win a game due to simple mistakes that were capitalized by competitors. This year I think many opponents will be surprised with the talent stepping on to that field."
2016 record: 2-5, 7-10
Coach: Tony Incontrera
Returning starters: 6
Key players: Seniors Lewy Anania* (midfield), Ben Ellrich (defense) and Jake Polinsky (attack); sophomore Colin Kelley# (goalie).
Coach's report: "For the first time since 2014, Marriotts Ridge returns a starter in the goal. Experience there, coupled with four of six offensive starters returning will give the Mustangs a chance to have a strong season."
2016 record: 5-2, 13-6
Coach: Mike McCarthy
Returning starters: 1
Key players: Seniors Karson Porter (midfield), Jake Edmonson (midfield), Nolan Aberdeen (goalie), Torrey Jones (defense) and Nick Brown (attack).
Coach's report: "Our expectation for this team is that we improve everyday. With such a drastic turnover from last season it is critical that we gain valuable game experience throughout the regular season. With a highly competitive schedule we will be challenged every game, our goal is for our team to compete and play hard every second they are on the field. If we are able to compete and develop a strong team chemistry, I think we will be very well prepared to make a run in May."
2016 record: 3-4, 8-7
Coach: Skip Darden
Returning starters: 5
Key players: Seniors Evan Riss* (midfield) and Chris McGlothan (goalie); juniors John Stafford (defense), Nick Miller (attack) and Ben Goldfein (midfield).
Coach's report: "We look forward to competing in all of our games this year. Last year's team seemed to generate offense and that was a concern early on in the season. This year we have two returning attackmen from that team but we will have to step up our midfield offensive production. Our defense is big, athletic and fast, now we have to match that with smart play. Our goalkeeper is returning; he split time about 50-50 with the other goalie from last year."
2016 record: 4-7, 7-9
Coach: Bryan Cole
Returning starters: 2
Key players: Seniors Patrick Raymond (midfield) and Jake Carson (defense); sophomore Talon Campbell (midfield).
Coach's report: "This is the youngest team I have coached at Reservoir in my 13 seasons. While we are young in age and somewhat in experience, we also have athletic young men that are quickly learning the speed and complexity of the game at the varsity level. They are a fun and exciting group to coach. They are eager to learn the game and improve as a team. They work hard in practice and I am looking forward to seeing them grow during the year."
2016 record: 10-1, 13-4
Coach: Keith Gonsouland
Returning starters: 5
Key players: Seniors Cory Marciniak (midfield) and Derek Isaac# (midfield); juniors Jon Felix (attack), Brendan McKenna (attack) and Shane DeLore (midfield); sophomores Max Friedman (attack) and Josh Weingrad (midfield).
Coach's report: "Our expectations are to get better every time we step on the field, which will enable us compete for a county, regional, and state championship. We are learning what it is to work hard physically and mentally and we will be a work in progress."
2016 record: 2-5, 8-8
Coach: Mychael Gaines
Returning starters: N/A
Key players: Seniors Kevin Comeaux (midfield), Daniel Joseph (goalie) and Saquan Maxwell (defense); juniors Andrew Tiffey (attack) and Noah Sutker (midfield); sophomores Saleem Jackson (defense) and Brian Benzing (defense); freshman Jonathan Fantana (midfield).
Coach's report: "This year we don't have a team at Wilde Lake; we have a family of brothers who are committed to being outstanding and exemplifying what student athletes are. They are very dedicated to getting better everyday. They are focused on the goals of our program and fulfilling the theme to our season, 'Journey to a title.' This is incredibly special team due to their work ethic and ability to find a way to get it done. We expect to be well over .500 and to bring back a championship to Wilde Lake."
2016 record: 2-6 MIAA C, 3-6
Coaches: Tom Flynn and Bill Gould
Returning starters: N/A
Key players: Seniors Trevor Bennett (defense), Sean Thomas (midfield) and Marc Little (attack).
Coach's report: "Due to the weather we only got in eight games last year and we are looking to a fuller schedule to help us develop as individuals and as a team. Chapelgate is a great school and you see that in the kids in their character and work ethic. We're looking forward to that helping our team this year, as well as having Bill Gould on the sidelines. Bill played lacrosse and football at Hofstra and brings a ton of knowledge experience to the sidelines. We're blessed to have him out there."
2016 record: 6-2 MIAA B, 9-7
Coach: Al Hernandez
Returning starters: 6
Key players: Seniors Riley Schmidt (midfield), Christian Vandenheuvel (defense) and Nelson Lequang (attack); juniors Mikey Welsh (midfield/attack), Gary Robertson (defense) and Christian Kruach (defense); freshman Brayden Franey (goalie).
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Coach's report: "With a new season comes a new team, all new playmakers and lots of new pieces on a small puzzle of a 25-man roster. Expectations are to get back to where we were a year ago, competing in May for a championship. But it won't be an easy road with a tough and talented MIAA B conference. A challenging out-of-conference schedule versus two MIAA A conference squads in St. Paul's and Spalding, along with Philadelphia's IAC Spring Hill Chestnut Academy, makes March a tough start. We are relying on our experienced upper classmen and putting a ton of trust and faith in freshmen and sophomores to grow up quickly in MIAA varsity lacrosse."