The Liberty boys soccer team, coached by Lee Kestler, is heading for its sixth playoff appearance in the past nine years. And its coach never played the game.
Kestler, who took over at Liberty in 1984, played several sports, but soccer was not one of them. When his young son showed an interest in soccer, Kestler taught himself about the game.
Liberty, which lost to Class 2A state co-champion Rockville in last year's state semifinal, has made the playoffs four straight years. The Lions (6-5-1) travel to Middletown tomorrow for a regional playoff game. Liberty is established as a force in Carroll County soccer. Kestler has been a big reason.
"Over the years, he's had a very dominant squad," said Francis Scott Key boys soccer coach Gee Hibberd. "It's been a class operation."
The whole trip started when Kestler's son, Lee, expressed an interest in soccer at around age 7. After signing his son up in a league and watching him play, Kestler decided he wanted to learn more about the game and began reading books, talking to any person who would listen and attending clinics.
After his family moved to Carroll County in 1975, Kestler became active in area soccer.
"I just thought we had to make the kids out here aware of how the rest of the world played the game," said Kestler, whose son played for Liberty, South Carroll, UMBC and for indoor and outdoor professional soccer teams.
Kestler, a 31-year employee of the Department of Defense at Fort Meade, founded the Freedom Optimist soccer program for girls in the fall of 1976 after his daughter -- Lee Jr.'s twin -- expressed an interest in the game. That started with 60 girls that Kestler recruited.
During that first year, the league consisted of two teams in two age groups. Kestler wound up as coach of all four teams. He also officiated all the games, so he coached both teams at the same time he refereed a game.
"Hey, it was wild," said Kestler.
A boys program followed the next year. Four years later, Kestler became a referee handling high school boys junior varsity games. Kestler is no longer involved with the Freedom program.
In 1982, he became assistant boys soccer coach at Liberty. When Fran McCullin left after the 1983 season, Kestler got the top job.
Kestler's soccer education continued. He repeatedly picked other coaches' brains, asked ideas on strategies and went to any soccer game that he could.
Kestler said he went to Howard County just to see the Oakland Mills-Centennial battles to try to glean information.
"When you have kids who are good athletes, you basically show up," said Kestler. "You look for tendencies, strong ones and weak ones and try to come up with strategies to counteract them."
PTC It took some time for Kestler to learn the intricacies of the game.
For example, he has received diagrams of strategies from friendly coaches. He incorporated all of this information into the Liberty program.
Kestler admitted at times feeling a bit odd coaching a sport he never played.
"There are times when you get that feeling," said Kestler. "If you do stay with the status quo, and if you don't make changes to augment your team in accordance with the program of the kids and the game itself, the [feeling will come]."
"He's helped me," said Hibberd, whose Francis Scott Key teams have won two state titles. "He might be picking other people's brains, but when I get the opportunity, I pick his."