Before the girls soccer season began, Arundel coach Paul Yannuzzi sat down with his players and mapped out their goals.
No. 1 on the list was to put together a winning record, which sounded pretty reasonable, considering that the Wildcats were 6-6 the previous year under former coach Greg Helms. But as Yannuzzi later discovered, they hadn't finished above .500 since going 7-4-1 in 1985.
That wasn't the biggest challenge awaiting the Wildcats, however. Their second goal was to reach the playoffs, something that had occurred just once at the Gambrills school, in 1981, when Arundel won its first 12 games under Debbie Tanner before losing to Andover in the district tournament.
"We've achieved one," Yannuzzi said on Wednesday, "and unless we pretty much fall on our face, I think we'll achieve the other."
It certainly looks that way.
Arundel improved to 9-1 with Friday's 1-0 win over North County. Going into that game, the Wildcats were first in the 3A-4A East region, followed by Western, Chesapeake and Old Mill. The top four teams qualify for the playoffs.
The unranked Wildcats, whose only loss came in their fourth game, 2-1, to South River, still must face No. 5 Chesapeake on Tuesday and No. 2 Severna Park on Thursday. No one said it was going to be easy.
Yannuzzi, who took over the program when Helms transferred to North County, said he knew the Wildcats were close to challenging for the playoffs. He made the necessary adjustments, like going with three halfbacks and three forwards, instead of the 4-2 alignment of the previous year, and got the "numerical superiority up front" that he desired.
"The first time I saw them, I was impressed with their ability to pass the ball and the way they communicated with one another," he said. "The biggest thing was their desire to do better. They listen to everything you tell them and try to do everything you ask them. Helms is an old friend of mine and we talked a lot. He told me there was a lot of talent there and that he felt this year's team would be very good. So, I went in knowing we weren't rebuilding.
Still, Yannuzzi admits that everything is working out "better than anticipated."
Surely, he wasn't banking on last Tuesday's 3-1 victory over Broadneck. Arundel never had beaten the Bruins and had scored just one goal, in a 3-1 loss in 1991.
The Wildcats fell behind 1-0 on Tuesday, but with the Bruins' marking leading scorer Barb Muller (eight goals, two assists), stopper Kristen Smeby converted twice and halfback Nicole Ross scored a goal in the second half.
"At halftime, I did my best Knute Rockne impression, spitting and yelling, and they came out and elevated their game two notches, not one," Yannuzzi said. "And we got lucky, too. It started raining, and Smeby hits a shot from about 30 yards that Broadneck's keeper was in position to pick up on the bounce, but it skipped past her. The gods of soccer smiled on us."
This wasn't the first time that the Wildcats have benefited from circumstance.
Arundel's four toughest games come at the end of the season, and Yannuzzi said, "Whoever the schedule-maker is, I'll have to send them some flowers or a case of beer. I don't know if we'll beat Chesapeake and Severna Park, but we'll play better against them than we would have early in the year."
Arundel played well enough to defeat Old Mill two weeks ago, but was saddled with a 2-1 loss -- until Patriots coach Bruce Sponsler discovered that he had used an ineligible player. He immediately contacted Rick Wiles, the county coordinator of physical education and athletics.
The result: a forfeit win for Arundel, even though it had blown a 1-0 lead with about eight minutes left.
Early in the year, Arundel wasn't expected to perform particularly well against anyone, "but after watching them play a couple of games, you could see that the ability was there," said North County coach Marianne Shultz. "And Paul's charisma allows him to get the most out of his girls."
Yannuzzi had worked similar magic while coaching softball at Severna Park, leading the Falcons to the 4A state championship in 1987 and making the team a regular playoff contender.
But this was different. He had coached recreation boys soccer for the Harundale organization "for about a million and a half years," but nothing on the high school level.
And yet, here are the Wildcats, closing in on a playoff berth, and maybe even the No. 1 seeding.
"This is exactly what I expected," said athletic director Bernie Walter. "We have a good coaching staff and we've always had good girls. They're doing a terrific job. This is what we hoped for and things are working out great."