The high school soccer program undergoes a sea change in what promises to be the most interesting season in a long time.
Centennial, unbeaten state champs in four of the last five seasons, during which time they posted a 73-2-7 record, returns another strong team and is again favored to win county and state championships.
But the Class 3A Eagles won't achieve those goals without navigating some turbulent waters. They'll be missing bedrock coach Bill Stara, who has made a career teaching move to the new River Hill, where favorable demographics and a technology-magnet program open the door to a future soccer dynasty that promises to be every bit as dominant as Centennial's has been.
In addition to overcoming the loss of its longtime coach, who was replaced by assistant coach Ron Martin, Centennial faces upgraded competition. The Eagles' 31-game winning streak and game unbeaten streak will be tested severely by Mount Hebron and Wilde Lake, which return powerful teams capable of upsetting the Eagles.
Soccer fans will watch with avid interest to see whether Centennial withstands the loss of Stara.
"We wish we still had him, but think we can win without him," said Ben Stephenson, Centennial's All-Metro sweeper. "Our new coach is fitting in well."
Stara begins a program at River Hill that will have no senior class, but has one of the most talented freshman groups in the county in a long time.
"It's not the best freshman class ever, but one of the better freshman classes," Stara said. "We can be competitive."
Some coaches say they wouldn't be surprised if Class 1A River Hill upsets Centennial this season.
"We're going to try our best not to let that happen," Stephenson said.
All-Metro midfielder Matt Laycock said: "We won't take them lightly. They have a great coach, but we're an old team that
could start 11 seniors, and we want to go out with a good feeling and keep the Centennial tradition alive. There's no place but first place this season."
Stara said: "It's going to feel awkward [playing Centennial] because I had a relatively tight bond with the seniors. I'll respect them tremendously but won't roll over and give them the game."
Laycock, Stephenson, Matt Stephenson and Brian Otten are four Centennial returnees who were members of the under-17 national champion Columbia United club team this summer.
Other United players were Jason Gotis of Oakland Mills and Pat Halter of Mount Hebron.
Laycock made the decisive shot in a semifinal shootout against St. Louis, and Halter and Gotis each scored in the 4-2 championship win over Seattle.
"It still almost hasn't hit me yet that we won a national title," said Laycock, who has played on several national teams.
Laycock (pulled hip muscle), along with All-Metro striker Matt Stephenson (pulled hamstring), had not practiced with Centennial through Tuesday because of injury, but both are expected to be ready for the Eagles' opener, Sept. 11, against Whitman.
River Hill is one of two new technology-magnet high schools, joining Long Reach in the first Howard County high school expansion since Hammond opened in 1976 and Centennial in 1977.
Anyone on the west side of Route 29 can attend the technology program at River Hill. Anyone on the east side can attend Long Reach.
That leaves a lot of leeway for outstanding soccer players who may naturally be attracted by the credentials and success of someone like Stara, who has won state and national coaching awards.
Seniors were not allowed to transfer to the magnet schools. But Centennial did lose a talented junior, Billy Allen, to River Hill.
"Hopefully people won't abuse it [magnet program], but it's going to be hard not to take advantage of it," said Laycock. "People are going to want to play for him. If I was in [Allen's] situation, I'd do the same thing."
Atholton coach Reg Hahne expects to see the magnet programs transform the face of soccer.
Already Hahne said he has lost an upperclassman and at least one freshman to the magnet program at River Hill. The upperclassman, junior Sam Salganik, would have been Hahne's team captain.
A decline in the quantity of players at Atholton, which was 7-4-2 overall and fourth in the county last season, and which won a state title in 1990, has left Hahne hoping for a .500 season at best. He sees an uncertain future for Atholton's soccer program.
"This will be the first time in 14 seasons that I haven't had to cut players," Hahne said.
But it is not just the magnet program that hurt Atholton. Redistricting created a loss of about 300 students and forced the school's reclassification from Class 3A to Class 2A. Howard also dropped from 3A to 2A.
Another significant change in the soccer venue this season is the loss of Glenelg coach John Bouman, who transformed a weak program into a winner, capturing a state title in 1992. Bouman resigned so that he could coach his two sons' youth soccer teams. He was replaced by assistant coach Peter Klisas.
Pub Date: 8/30/96