"I always have hopes -- hopes and fears," says Chesapeake girls soccer coach Lin Sullivan. "This year, more of my hopes have come true than my fears."
And by a wide margin.
Sullivan's team has tip-toed up the metro area rankings, all the way to No. 4 and past such perennial heavyweights as Old Mill (No. 5), St. Mary's (No. 7) and Severna Park (No. 10). The Cougars and Old Mill began the week as the only undefeated county squads.
Chesapeake entered the season ranked No. 13, but seven victories later, the Cougars have left other teams in their dust. And they did so without much fanfare.
"Actually, we wanted to be under-ranked," said senior defender Tracy Starke, part of a unit that had surrendered just four goals before yesterday's game against Annapolis. "That's when people tend to overlook you and that's an advantage for us. Maybe they'll let down a little bit and we can step up and knock teams off."
"In the time I've been with the program, we've gone from being the best of the rest to finishing up near the top and making the playoffs," said Sullivan, in his eighth season. "Other schools have gotten used to getting a competitive game when they play Chesapeake, but we still haven't, over the long haul, established the same reputation as Severna Park and Old Mill. And, very honestly, we haven't earned it yet."
They're coming close.
Chesapeake made huge strides last year by defeating Severna Park, 2-1, in the regional finals, denying the Falcons a shot at their fourth consecutive state championship. It was the Cougars' first win over Severna Park and signaled a possible changing of the guard among county soccer powers.
Chesapeake then played Dulaney extremely tough in the state semifinals before losing, 1-0, on a wind-blown shot by the Lions' Frances Forcellese that curled into the net.
"We're going for it all this year," said Melissa Wagner, a 5-foot-2 sophomore striker/wing who led Chesapeake with nine goals before yesterday's game. "I'm hoping for a really good ending to a really good year."
There was some doubt about whether the Cougars had enough returning talent and experience to make another run at a state title -- especially with Old Mill moving into their region.
Graduation had stripped the program of nine seniors, including seven starters. The defense still appeared solid, even with the loss of first-team All-County keeper Cindy Herbert, but Sullivan thought that scoring would be a problem.
While the defense has stifled opponents -- the first three goals allowed came off corner kicks from the right side -- the offense had scored a county-high 38 times in seven games. Included in the total are an 8-0 shutout of Queen Anne's, an 8-1 rout of North County and a 7-1 victory over previously unbeaten Northeast.
"There are four or five of us who switch around and we can all put it in the goal," said Stacey Necessary, a senior striker/wing. "If they mark me, then Wagner can always put it in. If they mark her, then we have Michelle Manner. We always have someone."
Wagner was brought up to the varsity midway through last season and made an immediate impact. Small in stature, she has come up big in every game.
"It's a little scary," said Wagner, whose overtime goal gave Chesapeake a 2-1 win over South River last Tuesday. "I'm afraid that I'm peaking too early, that maybe I won't have anything left at the end. But so far, it's been really good."
Another sophomore, keeper Sandra Norris, has been just as impressive in her first year on the varsity. Though still prone to making errors, she is quick to recover and maintains her composure.
"Right now, I'd say she has the potential to be one of the best, if not the best, goalkeepers we've ever had," said assistant coach Dennis Thiele, who works with the defense. "She's filled all our FTC expectations so far. And she has some senior leadership in front of her on defense, which is helping her out."
"I'm learning a lot," said Norris, who plays behind seniors Starke, Nancy Yeager and Natalie Black, and juniors Amber Campbell and Jamie Long. "I know, right now, I'm not going to be as good as Cindy Herbert, but I'm doing the best I can."
Said Starke: "Cindy would take charge, tell our defense exactly where we were supposed to be. With Sandra, she's kind of intimidated because she has three seniors in front of her. Even though we've told her she's the boss and she's the one who can see the field best, she's still hesitant to take control. But [sweeper] Nancy Yeager has done a good job of directing the defense."
This sort of teamwork has the Cougars on the move.
Onward, and upward.