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Son is shining at River Hill

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Almost from the minute he was born, River Hill senior defender Matt Stara has been totally immersed in soccer.

His first pair of shoes were an Adidas soccer brand. With a leash tied to his stroller, the family dog pulled him through chalk-lined fields and up steep training hills. He crawled through vacant goal posts. Amid shrieking whistles, a stampede of cleats and whizzing soccer balls, he took his first steps.

"The poor kid didn't have a choice," said his mother, Arden Stara. "All of the presents at his baby shower were given by soccer parents. He was the little kid in the soccer float at homecoming parades. One way or the other, he's always been involved with the game."

And he has thrived, as well. A four-year varsity player in high school, Stara - the son of River Hill coach Bill Stara, who has won more state titles than any coach in the history of Maryland soccer - is a defensive force with a dangerous left foot for the Hawks, who are shooting for their fourth consecutive class 3A state championship.

As a young boy, Matt Stara would kick his ball around the backyard, playing imaginary games and practicing drills to polish his skills. When Matt was 8, his father promised a new pair of Nike Air Zoom cleats if he could juggle the ball 100 consecutive times.

"I got up to 50 and he only gave me one shoe," Matt says. "About a week later, I felt relieved when I accomplished my goal. I wore those shoes everywhere I went."

His sparkling play on a neighborhood recreation team earned an invitation to join the Columbia Bulldogs travel team. Before he was 12, Matt was developing an ability to create advantageous situations out of the defensive backfield.

He traveled overseas - playing on well-manicured and lush green fields against the junior development squads of Arsenal in England and A.C. Milan in Italy - before reaching his teens.

The culture of the game in Europe gave him a greater appreciation for the sport.

"Every pass had a purpose," he said. "The pace of the game, judgment and thought process were a lot quicker. Over there, they play for the patch on the front of their jerseys, not the names on the back.

"Every time I step on the field I enjoy every moment, but I'm dead serious and playing to win."

When talking to Bill Stara, it's easy to see where Matt gets his approach to the game.

Bill Stara grew up in western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, an area well known for blue-collar steel mill workers and its assembly line production of professional football talent. Some of the local kids at the time were named Dan Marino, Tony Dorsett and Joe Montana.

As a freshman in high school, Bill tried out for the football team, got cut and decided to give soccer a try. He became a talented goalkeeper on a struggling team.

"I got a lot of practice during games and I didn't deal with losing very well," said Bill, referring to a porous defense that allowed opponents to attack his goal at will.

His work ethic and desire to succeed helped him become a small college All-American at Behrend College in Erie, Pa. He briefly played as a professional for the Pittsburgh Spirit in the old Major Indoor Soccer League before entering scholastic coaching.

As the head coach at River Hill, Bill has taught the Hawks players a valuable lesson about losing: Don't do it.

Under Bill Stara, the Hawks have won six of the past nine state titles. Before coming to River Hill, he won seven state championships at Centennial.

Known as a demanding perfectionist, the coach will tell you that he doesn't play favorites. In fact, he's quick to jump on Matt at practice.

Around the house though, Bill puts his whistle and clipboard away. Unless his son asks about his play, the father will keep his mouth closed.

"At home, it's time to be dad," Bill says. "There has to be balance in a kid's life. I've chosen to coach. He'll play soccer, go to school and be a kid.

Matt, 6 feet 2 and 195 pounds, earned second-team All-Metro honors last year while assisting on 20 of his team's goals. His assist numbers probably would have been higher if not for the coach's philosophy of resting starters during blowouts to develop those with less experience. Long throw-ins are his trademark, proving to be a potent weapon for the Hawks during his career.

But long throw-ins alone do not define his game. A physical defender, he possesses the creativity and technical ability to intercept the ball, read the action quickly, take two touches and send a 40-yard shot to an attacking player making a diagonal run. A rare combination of physicality and finesse who sees the entire field, Matt is being recruited by West Virginia and Pittsburgh.

Matt's devotion to soccer, however, has not prevented him from having other interests. On a cruise to Jamaica over the summer, for example, he used his fleet feet to win a dance contest.

And while Bill can be consumed at home watching game tapes, reading coaching manuals and fine-tuning strategies, Matt prefers listening to music.

His father's intense personality as a coach, though, has not adversely affected him, said Matt, adding that he realized before he kicked his first ball that kids who bought what his father was teaching won championships.

"My dad pushes me hard, but he has good intentions," Matt said.

In the Hawks' second game this season, against Liberty, Bill took a brief moment to enjoy watching his son. On a free kick, Matt bent the ball around a wall of defenders, bounced it off the post and into the net for his first goal of the year.

"It's his last year and I want to take a step back to enjoy the journey with him," Bill said. "It's been a long road and he's done very well."

It's a road that began with Matt observing soccer practices from his baby stroller, as his father taught his players about the benefits of hard work, discipline and putting the team ahead of the individual.

Matt was - and still is - paying attention.

"I just work hard from when the whistle begins the game until the end," Matt said. "I appreciate being able to play the game."

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