Thanks to the new open playoff format for girls soccer, Old Mill has gone from a bubble team to a benefactor.
In danger of not qualifying for the Class 3A-4A East Region tournament under the old system, the Patriots now are three wins away from being in the final. And among the teams standing in their way are two weaker squads from Baltimore, including today's opponent, the City Knights.
Should Old Mill (8-4) get past City, it would meet the Patterson Clippers, with the winner playing either Glen Burnie or North County. Both of those teams have lost seven games, though the Gophers upset Old Mill, 2-0, Sept. 23.
Chesapeake (7-4-1) doesn't have as promising a draw in the region, but the Cougars also were helped by the open tournament. They, too, are a team that will challenge for a berth in the final, if they can get past No. 10 Arundel tomorrow. The Wildcats (10-1-1) beat Chesapeake, 2-1, in the season-opener.
As Old Mill coach Bruce Sponsler said, "Anything can happen in the game of soccer."
He attended Tuesday's game between City and Patterson, which the Knights won, 3-2, in overtime. "I'm sure they're really pumped up and highly motivated to play their best game [today]," he said.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to come out and play well right off the bat. . . . If we get ahead, we should be able to stay ahead."
That's something Old Mill has been doing lately, winning three in a row and six of its last eight. Its only losses were to county-champion South River, 2-1, and Arundel in overtime, 1-0.
The Patriots also have outscored their last three opponents, 18-2.
They got off to a 2-2 start, which is extremely poor by their standards. This is a program that has won four region championships, plus state titles in 1986 and 1987.
With so many key players lost to graduation, including four-year starting goalkeeper Jackie Bardelli and all-time leading scorer Michelle Salmon, the Patriots were a team in need of some fine-tuning.
Sponsler waited until the sixth game before moving junior Carina Sonberg (eight goals, two assists) to center forward, senior Denise King to stopper -- where she was named honorable-mention All-State -- senior Julie Bender to center halfback, and senior Alicia Curran (nine goals, three assists) to left wing.
The scoring picked up and the defense tightened. With better support in front of them, goalkeepers Stephanie Rose, Megan Dasch and Carri Christian have made fewer than 50 saves.
"This is the first time I've really had to tinker so late in the season," Sponsler said.
Chesapeake coach Lin Sullivan has kept busy, too, but his moves were necessitated more by injuries than ineffectiveness. Center halfback Erin Thomas hurt her knee in the fourth game, a 2-1 loss to South River. Forward Jen Fath and fullback Missy Silvers also were sidelined, and "new kids with practically no experience had to fill the holes," he said.
The result: a 1-2-1 record after four games, from a program that twice had been to the state tournament, in 1991 and 1993, and was expected to challenge for county supremacy this season.
From there, however, Chesapeake went 6-2 and outscored its last four opponents, 24-4. And one reason was a gamble by Sullivan, who moved last year's All-Metro goalkeeper, Sandra Norris, to striker and replaced her with Angie Zittle. Sullivan wouldn't say which player would be in goal tomorrow.
"The last time we had a record as miserable as this, we missed the playoffs by one point," Sullivan said. "There's a chance we wouldn't have made it this year. As it turns out, now we're playing what I consider to be the best team in the region."
At least his Cougars are better prepared. Thomas was expected to miss the season, but she practiced this week and will play tomorrow. And senior Melissa Wagner (18 goals, six assists) has rebounded from a slow start to again rank among the area leaders in scoring.
"We're probably as ready for [Arundel] now as we can be," Sullivan said.
"My guess is the other team coming out of the bracket will be Old Mill, so, I guess if you have to face both of those teams, you get one first and one last. I can live with that."
It beats not being there.