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Howard boys lacrosse hopes to remain on top of wide open county

Which Howard County boys lacrosse team will come out on top in 2016?

It would be easy for the defending 4A/3A state champion Howard boys lacrosse team to simply rest on its laurels from a year ago, especially when you consider the amount of talent the Lions graduated.

Player of the Year Scott Bruner and fellow first-team all-county players Eric Schroeder, Brad Zulick and Cody Ford – who combined to score 251 of the team’s 343 goals a year ago – are no longer lighting up the scoreboard at Howard.

“We certainly don’t try to compare anyone to that group – that group was special,” said Lions coach Jimmy Creighton, who led his team to a 14-6 victory over Churchill in last year’s state championship game and has a record of 53-4 over the last three seasons combined. “I don’t think anyone would want to be compared to that group because it’s not really fair. Losing those guys hurts. A lot of those guys started for us for three or four years, so that was a big part of our program.”

Without those guys in the fold, it’s clear there’s more turnover than ever for a program that went 19-0 a year ago and hasn’t lost a county game since 2013. They may not outscore opponents 343-77 like they did a year ago, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the players on both sides of the ball to reach the pinnacle once again.

“We had a lot of other guys itching for playing time – these younger guys coming up,” Creighton said. “Some of our seniors want to play a bigger role, so they’re really excited for the season to gear up and excited to play a bigger part.”

Returning for Howard is all-county senior goalie Collin McClelland, who saved more than 68 percent of the shots he faced a year ago, shutdown defenders Josh Vetter and Vanden Vale, midfielder Alex Stephanos (10 goals, 27 assists in 2015), and versatile attackmen Malik Anderson and Tristan Kelehan (18 goals in 2015), among others. It’s a talented roster that’s hungry to prove they can stay on top once again this spring.

Anderson, an Offensive Player of the Year candidate on the football field in the fall, could be the biggest wildcard in the county this season. He missed all of the regular season last spring with a shoulder injury he suffered playing football, but showed a glimpse of what he can do when he scored a late goal against Westminster in an 8-7 regional semifinal victory during the state championship run.

Anderson says he doesn’t feel any pressure to lead a young and inexperienced offense.

“I’ve done it in football, so I’m used to it,” he said. “It’s just a different sport. I’m excited. Just like football, we lost a lot of seniors from last season, and it’s the same now for lacrosse. We keep saying to everyone that we don’t rebuild, we reload.”

Still, Creighton says the strength of the team is on defense. That doesn’t mean the young guys on the offensive end can’t find the back of the net, though.

“The dynamics of the team haven’t changed. On the field, especially early on, we’re going to be leaning on our defense a little bit, leaning on our senior goalie and leaning on that defensive leadership until we get the offense to jell together a little bit more,” he said. “The defense, we don’t want to change what we’re doing. Offensively, we’re not changing a whole lot, but we’re not looking at one or two guys and saying, ‘Hey man, you’re going to take this guy to the goal and score.’ We’re going to be more of a team offense and running the motion offense, which is what we did last year, too.”

At the end of the day, the Lions still have the same goals in mind. It just might be a little more difficult to accomplish with the rise of teams like Glenelg, Mt. Hebron, River Hill and Marriotts Ridge and the new tiered-scheduling system in Howard County lacrosse.

“We have the same expectations every year – to win a county, regional and state championship,” said McClelland, who stopped 145 shots last year. “I fully believe if we play the way we’re capable of we can achieve those goals.”

The tiered system, which has been in place in Anne Arundel County for several years, means the 12 county public school teams will no longer play each other once. Instead, the county teams have been split into three groups based on the records of the boys and girls lacrosse squads records over the last few years.

The top tier consists of Glenelg, Howard, Marriots Ridge and Mt. Hebron; the middle tier teams are Atholton, Centennial, Reservoir and River Hill; and the bottom tier group is Hammond, Long Reach, Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake.

The top-tier teams will play each other and the middle-tier teams once, as well as two out-of-county games and three games with the top Anne Arundel County schools. Nothing has changed for the middle-tier teams, as they will play the other 11 county teams and one out-of-county game. The bottom-tier teams will play each other and the middle-tier teams once, and will square off with three lower-level Anne Arundel County teams and two other out-of-county games. Each team can also play two tournament games.

For Howard, it means there will be no days off.

“I feel like the county will be interesting and will be very competitive, especially with the new tiered system,” Vetter said. “We’re working hard everyday to be the best we can be. We have the same goal every year – it’s to win at the county level, then the region level and win the state championship. I feel like with the new tiered system it will help us prepare because we will play all the top teams and hopefully get us ready to make a nice run in May.”

The feedback from the majority of county coaches is that it will have a positive effect on all three levels. The goal of the new system was to get rid of lopsided results between the top- and bottom-tier teams and instead play more competitive games against similar levels of competition.

“I think there’s a lot more parity in the county this year and I think you’ll see a lot more competitive games,” Creighton said. “That top tier is pretty tough right now, but then you’ve got teams like River Hill, who was knocking on the door for a state championship last year, in the middle tier. They’re going to be right there, and Atholton, Centennial and Reservoir are all teams that have made some noise in the past and competed with the top teams. Overall it’s good for the county to get more competitive games and we can showcase some of the top talent all around and in Anne Arundel County.

“For us, I think everybody is excited about the schedule, especially with the Anne Arundel County matchups and getting that high-level competition. We know it’s going to be a tough task game-by-game, and everyone says no games off, no games off – but now it’s like legit. If you don’t bring your A-game, you’re probably going to end up with some losses. The guys need to stay focused every game all season.”

New coaches

Both Long Reach and Glenelg Country welcome new varsity coaches this season, as John Horner takes over the Lightning squad from Frank Valenza and Al Hernandez replaces Risto Worthington as the Dragons’ coach.

Horner, who is also the head varsity boys soccer coach, has been an assistant under Valenza for the last eight years. He played two years of lacrosse in high school and says he learned a lot under Valenza’s tutelage.

“I picked up a lot from him and watching him coach. I think it helps a lot that I’m in the school teaching and I know the guys,” Horner says. “I’m pretty excited to see how it goes. Over the past couple years I’ve had to step in when Frank wasn’t able to be there and I’ve enjoyed coaching. I come with a lot of experience in soccer, so I know how to coach the guys up.”

Hernandez has been around the sport for 25 years and has been coaching in some capacity for the last 17 seasons. As a player at Walt Whitman High School in Long Island, New York, he was the school’s second-ever All-American in the mid-1990s. He also played college lacrosse at UMBC, where he was a team captain and led the Retrievers to their first NCAA Division I Tournament appearance in 1998.

He has also had coaching stints at Mount Saint Joseph High School in Baltimore and at River Hill from 2012 to 2013.

“At (Glenelg Country) it's more than just playing lacrosse now, it's about kids getting more out of the game and I intend to make sure the young men who play here experience that,” he says. “We use words like humility and integrity to prepare our guys for a life beyond the lacrosse field. I believe in this because it is a value system that has been a part of me and it’s where I am from back in Huntington – I will never forget that. We are going to play some good lacrosse here eventually and kids are going to get better on and off the field.”

Here’s what to expect from each of the 14 county teams:

*First-team all-county; ^Second-team all-county in 2015

Atholton Raiders

Coach: Erik Burnett

Last season: 8-8 overall, 6-5 county

Tier: Middle

Top players: Seniors Joey Brewer (attack), Nick Sabella (defense), Talbott Gottwals (attack), Donny Quinn (defense) and Darren Kasoff (goalie); sophomore Jake Peretti (midfield).

Outlook: The Raiders are one of the most experienced teams in the county and return seven starters – including the entire attack, two defensemen and goalie Darreen Kasoff. Even with the plethora of experience, the roster consists of only 11 seniors. Atholton coach Erik Burnett knows his team’s success will be determined based on the growth of the underclassmen.

“The development of our younger contributors will be critical to our team success,” he says. “We have the pieces to be a successful team, but figuring out how to win big games will be the test for this group.”

Seniors Joey Brewer and Talbott Gottwals, both of whom tallied 43 points each a year agom will carry the load offensively, but Burnett points to his defense as the strongest part of his squad.

“I think that the defense is going to provide challenges to a lot of teams,” he says. “It is a strong, deep group and I believe they could be our tone-setter in games.”

Centennial Eagles

Coach: Nick Kellinger

Last season: 5-9 overall, 5-6 county

Tier: Middle

Top players: Seniors Mike Moore (attack), Jaylen DeCarlo (midfield) and Jason Simpson (goalie); junior Mason Smith (defense); sophomore Jeremy Wilson (attack); freshman Stafford Smith (defense).

Outlook: After a rare down year in 2015, the Eagles look primed to get back on track and take another step forward this spring. Mike Moore, a senior who was injured throughout last season, is one of the top playmakers in the league on the offensive end, and senior goalie Jason Simpson is one of the best returning goalies in the area.

“I feel Jason Simpson was overlooked last year and he has worked throughout the off-season with a chip on his shoulder,” says Centennial coach Nick Kellinger.

Sophomore Jeremy Wilson started as a freshman and is back bigger and stronger than a year ago, and freshman Stafford Smith joins his older brother Mason on defense.

“After a difficult season last year, we are a team that is hungry and eager to show how hard we have worked throughout the offseason,” Kellinger says. “It is our goal to make Centennial a contender again.”

Glenelg Gladiators

Coach: Josh Hatmaker

Last season: 11-5 overall, 9-2 county

Tier: Top

Top players: Seniors Carson Marshall (attack), Brett Wasson^ (midfield), Breyer Burford^ (midfield), Alex Frith^ (midfield) and Kevin Wynne (attack); juniors Connor Stanley (defense) and Ryan Dry (midfield); sophomores Chase Collier (midfield) and Jordan Nalls (defense).

Outlook: The consensus among county coaches is that the Gladiators have the best shot at knocking two-time defending county champions Howard off this season, and it won’t take long to find out as Glenelg will host the Lions to start the season on March 22. The Gladiators return seven starters, but 11 guys who contributed heavily are back. That doesn’t include senior Kevin Wynne, who is back after a year at St. Paul’s, or second-team all-county goalie Anthony Valenza, who transferred from Long Reach.

Glenelg also returns three second-team all-county selections in the midfield in Brett Wasson, Breyer Burford and Alex Frith (faceoff), which is the team’s biggest strength.

Coach Josh Hatmaker knows being in the top tier that his team’s work will be cut out for them every single game.

“I think that you could have five or six teams literally separated by one game,” Hatmaker said.

Hammond Golden Bears

Coach: Chris Reagle

Last season: 0-13 overall, 0-11 county

Tier: Bottom

Top players: Seniors Joel Thomas (attack), Zack Wehrmeister (midfield); junior Dylan Sicca (goalie); sophomore Nick Pekins (midfield).

Outlook: The Golden Bears haven’t won a game in either of the last two seasons, but look for them to be much more competitive being in the lower-tier this spring. Coach Chris Reagle stocked many of his talented sophomores on JV a year ago and he believes the losses over the last two years has his team as hungry as any team in the county.

“This year's team returns several impact players from the last two seasons,” he says. “We feel the experience our leaders gained over the past two years has set us up for a great season.”

Senior captains Joel Thomas and Zack Wehrmeister are expected to carry the load offensively, while goalie Dylan Sicca showed tremendous improvement throughout last season. Reagle says sophomore face-off man Nick Pekins is a player to watch over the next few years.

“This is the most excited our guys have been in a long time,” Reagle says. “We have 50 players in our program this year compared to 35 the past couple of years all due to the increased opportunity to have competitive games on the schedule.”

Howard Lions

Coach: Jimmy Creighton

Last season: 19-0 overall, 11-0 county, 4A/3A state champions

Tier: Top

Top players: Seniors Tristen Kelehan (attack), Collin McClelland* (goalie), Josh Vetter (defense), Alex Stephanos (midfield) and Malik Anderson (attack); junior Dayton Fisher (midfield/defense).

Outlook: No team graduated as much as the Lions did. The county’s top-four scorers last year – Scott Bruner, Eric Schroeder, Brad Zulick and Cody Ford – are gone, as are first-team all-county players Ryan Land, Marshall McGlone and Adam Friedman.

But sitting behind those players over the last few years are other supremely talented competitors ready to carry the load and make another deep playoff run.

“We lost six starters to graduation and we are looking to some new and young faces to fill those roles, especially on offense,” says Howard coach Jimmy Creighton.

The defense is expected to be strong with Josh Vetter in front of first-team all-county senior goalie Collin McClelland, while the Lions will look to Tristan Kelehan and Malik Anderson to step up on offense. Alex Stephanos is the Lions’ most experienced point-scorer, as he pitched in with 10 goals and 27 assists in 2015.

“Alex was an impact player last year,” Creighton says. “We’re looking for him to play a bigger role.”

Long Reach Lightning

Coach: John Horner

Last season: 2-12 overall, 1-10 county

Tier: Bottom

Top players: Seniors Matt Cary (midfield), Justin Keeley (midfield), James Huh (defense), Danny Gomez (midfield) and Will Parham (attack); junior Jayden Kirby (attack); sophomores Mike Godfrey (goalie) and Bruce Phipps (attack).

Outlook: The Lightning return seven key players from last spring, but having a new coach in John Horner means it will take some time for the team to jell. With They also lost starting goalie Anthony Valenza, who transferred to Glenelg with his brother Thomas, but Horner is excited about his team’s chances this spring.

“Long Reach has a lot of passion and athleticism, and if we can translate that into good aggressive play on the field, then we will be very competitive this season,” Horner says. “Our ability to effectively communicate and to build chemistry on and off the field (will be key).”

Horner also says he is excited about the new format and being in the bottom tier, saying “it will allow us to play in more competitive games. ... my boys are excited about being in more competitive games.”

Marriotts Ridge Mustangs

Coach: Tony Incontrera

Last season: 11-5 overall, 7-4 county

Tier: Top

Top players: Seniors Troy Hensh^ (attack), Bladen Miller^ (defense), Casey Allwein (defense) and Casey Brennan (midfield).

Outlook: The Mustangs have gone 7-4 in county play each of the last two years, but this year’s team is full of unknowns on the offensive end after graduating first-team all-county attackman Pat Clipp. The defense, however, has a chance to be one of the best in the league with two second-team all-county players – senior Troy Hensh and Bladen Miller – back in the fold to lead a unit that allowed an average of just six goals per game.

“Our defensemen should be a strength for us because they have a good amount of experience,” says Marriotts Ridge coach Tony Incontrera. “The biggest determining factor of our success this season will be our ability to work through the toughest schedule in our school's history.”

The Mustangs will have their work cut out for them every game this season, but their final games of the season against Howard, Annapolis, Glenelg and Mt. Hebron before the playoffs is as tough a stretch of games that any team will play in the county.

Mt. Hebron Vikings

Coach: Mike McCarthy

Last season: 15-2 overall, 10-1 county

Tier: Top

Top players: Seniors Matt Leone* (defense), Shahin Manasterli (defense), Will Hamman (defense), Casey DuBois* (goalie), Kyle Watts (midfield), Kyle Sutton* (midfield), Bryce Brookhart (midfield), Tyler Holtzman (midfield), Scott Mackrell (attack), Anders Nillson (attack) and Dillon Scheeler (attack); junior Jake Edmonson (midfield); sophomore Nick Nordhausen (attack).

Outlook: The Vikings return more experience than any team in the county, and it’s all over the field. Three first-team all-county players – goalie Casey DuBois, midfielder Kyle Sutton and defender Matt Leone – are back, and Scott Mackrell, Anders Nillson and Tyler Holtzman player significant minutes for a team that reached the 3A/2A East regional final last spring.

“The defensive starters have started more than 100 combined games together,” says Mt. Hebron coach Mike McCarthy. “We hope to compete for a county title if we can stay healthy and get consistent play.”

A key will be replacing the offensive production of Shane Brookhart (35 goals, 21 assists in 2015), who graduated. McCarthy points to two MIAA transfers – Nick Nordhausen from Loyola Blakefield and Dillon Scheeler from St. Mary’s Ryken – as players who can help pick up the load alongside Mackrell and Nillson.

Oakland Mills Scorpions

Coach: Skip Darden

Last season: 3-10 overall, 2-9 county

Tier: Bottom

Top players: Seniors Muhammed Bohra (defense), Khaaliq Canada (attack), Kevin Paez (midfield), Chris McGlothan (goalie), Dennis Seyfried (defense) and Cole May (midfield); juniors Evan Riss^ (midfield) and Andrew Osiander (goalie); sophomores John Stafford (defense) and Nick Miller (attack).

Outlook: The Scorpions return one of the best players in the county in junior midfielder and Ohio State commit Evan Riss, and he has some help around him this season in midfielder Kevin Paez, forward Khaliq Canada and defender Muhammed Vohra. Coach Skip Darden says defense will be the team’s strength this season.

Senior Cole May is expected to contribute in the middle of the field and sophomore Nick Miller will anchor the attack with Canada. Andrew Osiander and Chris McGlothan are two solid goalie competing for the starting job.

“We are a young team made up of eight seniors, five of whom are starters and supported by a host of junior and sophomores,” he says. “We have veteran experience on the defense. ... We are taking nothing for granted and we are taking one game at a time.”

Reservoir Gators

Coach: Bryan Cole

Last season: 7-9 overall, 4-7 county

Tier: Middle

Top players: Seniors Jackson Hill^ (midfield), Ty Teodori (defense), Jessie Ekstrom (attack), Logan Mitchell (attack) and Max Zester (attack); junior Jake Carson (defense); freshman Tyler Reiff (midfield).

Outlook: The Gators return seven starters back from last year’s squad, including second-team all-county midfielder Jackson Hill, meaning cohesion – especially on defense – will be a strength. A group of younger, talented players like sophomore Jake Carson and freshman Tyler Reiff will help the losses of first-team all-county midfielder Matt Marsh and JT Arias to graduation. They start the season against River Hill, which should be a good test for both teams that are in the middle tier this spring.

“They are great group of young men who work extremely hard in practice and battle every opponent,” says Reservoir coach Bryan Cole. “As a coach that's all you want from your team in the end. They have talent, passion for the game and ability. I am looking forward to being a part of their journey this season.”

River Hill Hawks

Coach: Keith Gonsouland

Last season: 12-5 overall, 8-3 county, 3A/2A state finalists

Tier: Middle

Top players: Seniors Jake Friedman^ (attack), Tim French (defense), Tommy Barrett (defense), Noah Thyberg (goalie), Spencer Gray (goalie) and Danny Isaac (midfield); junior John Felix (attack); sophomores Brett Shaw (midfield) and Brendan McKenna (attack).

Outlook: The Hawks put it all together down the stretch last season to reach the 2A/3A state championship game against Kent Island, but even with the recent success they are in the middle tier this spring. Despite that, River Hill is among a handful of teams that are expected to compete for a county title, especially with guys like second-team all-county attackman Jake Friedman (28 goals, 20 assists in 2015) and UMBC commit Danny Isaac (19 goals, 12 assists) back for their senior seasons. New York transfer John Felix is expected to contribute on offense as well.

With top-tier talent, River Hill will play Mount Saint Joseph and Good Counsel – two of the top private school teams in the area – over Spring Break.

“We will be relying on a number of seniors who are more than capable of stepping into more prominent roles than they had as juniors,” says River Hill coach Keith Gonsouland.

Wilde Lake Wildecats

Coach: Jon Robinson

Last season: 5-11 overall, 3-8 county

Tier: Bottom

Top players: Seniors Ryan Tiffey^ (attack) and Patrick Riley (attack); junior Kevin Comeaux (midfield); sophomore Andrew Tiffey (attack).

Outlook: It’s a tale of two halves of the field for the Wildecats. They return a ton of production and experience on offense, while the defense will be a completely new unit. Senior Ryan Tiffey is the county’s top returning point-scorer (27 goals, 27 assists in 2015) and has a shot at leading the county in points. His younger brother Andrew tallied 19 goals and 15 assists as a freshman and Kevin Comeaux returns after scoring 22 goals last year.

“Look for a big jump in goals from Andrew Tiffey,” says Wildecats coach Jon Robinson, who adds that their Spring Break tournament games against Rockville and Smithsburg will say a lot about his team. Ball control and limiting turnovers will be the biggest key to Wilde Lake’s success this season.

Chapelgate Yellowjackets

Coach: Paul Merena

Last season: 5-8 overall, 5-7 MIAA C

Top players: Seniors Blake VanWingerden (defense), Charles Tibbles (midfield) and Grant Hawk (defense); junior Marc Little (attack); sophomore Josh Na (goalie); freshmen Mark Rolewicz (attack), Steve Barr (midfield) and Justin Ricketts (midfield).

Outlook: The Yellowjackets graduated several key contributors but return seven starters, including Blake VanWingerdan, a versatile player who saw time all over the field last year. A trio of freshmen – Mark Rolewicz, Steve Barr and Justin Ricketts – is also expected to contribute offensively.

“We have guys that have filled in some important positions and have worked hard this offseason to close the gap they are fulfilling,” says Chapelgate coach Paul Merena. “I think returning a lot of players is good because the leadership from last year is still intact, plus we've been through hard games so they know how to handle those.”

Merena notes the first four games of their season are against their toughest opponents, which will “set the bar for the rest of the season.”

Glenelg Country Dragons

Coach: Al Hernandez

Last season: 4-8 overall, 3-6 MIAA B

Top players: Seniors Pat Welsh (midfield), Eric Wooton (defense), Sean Escalante (midfield) and Reid Chaconas (midfield); juniors BJ Borowski (goalie) and Christian Vandenheuval (defense); sophomores Cameron Martin (attack) and Mikey Welsh (attack); freshman Calder Vandenheuval (defense).

Outlook: The Dragons had some top-level talent on the field last year, but lacked the depth needed to compete for a MIAA B Conference title. This season, though, their depth and senior leadership will be on display up and down the field.

Senior midfielder Sean Escalante was an all-MIAA B Conference selection last year, and fellow seniors Reid Chaconas, Pat Welsh and Eric Wooton will be key contributors in front of junior goalie BJ Borowski. New coach Al Hernandez expects his squad to be in the mix for the B Conference title.

“The kids at Glenelg Country have had a tremendous level of excitement going into this year. They want to play great lacrosse, the school wants the program to grow, and we want more kids that are up for a challenge,” he says. “The team is hungry to make Glenelg Country lacrosse a go-to place for the MIAA in Howard County.”

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