A few days before last year’s championship game, John Carroll boys soccer coach Jim Fendryk asked his players to write down their most rewarding experiences during their breakthrough season.
Big wins were noted, some first career goals and plenty of funny moments at practice.
But most of all, everybody made a point of jotting down the gift of playing with such a tight-knit group.
After a heartbreaking overtime loss to Calvert Hall in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference title game — putting an 18-3-2 season in the books — the team gathered for a pizza party.
“About a week after the final — for the sting to go away — we went back and read them,” Fendryk said. “Guys were laughing and sharing what we felt were successes. At the end of the day, we didn’t win the championship, but I think that exercise hammered home that the past year was really successful.”
Last year’s team was filled with juniors. Another year older, another year tighter, the 2023 Patriots are ranked No. 1 in The Baltimore Sun’s preseason Top 15 poll.
They are determined to make it to the championship game again and hungry to leave with a win. The program’s last league title came in 1989, when it competed in the Maryland Scholastic Association.
Led by senior captains Josh Petty, Eddie Smith, CJ Supan and Connor Ellis, the Patriots, who take a 1-0-2 record into Thursday’s home game against Calvert Hall in a rematch of last year’s title game, are stacked with experienced talent. It’s a collection of players who all bring their own special qualities. With many having played together and against each other since they were young, their biggest strength is clear.
“We’re all best of friends. So we’re very close and it makes everything 10 times more fun. It’s so much better doing it with a group of guys you like,” said Petty, a first-team All-Metro forward who finished with 20 goals and 18 assists last season.
“It would mean the world [to win the championship]. It’s what we’ve worked for the past four years and it will feel great. It would be a big thing for us and the entire John Carroll community.”
When this year’s championship game date was announced — Nov. 5 — the Patriots immediately posted it on the whiteboard in the team’s locker room. They are aware that hard work comes first.
Fendryk, in his 14th season, constantly reminds his Patriots that it’s a day-by-day, step-by-step process with the importance of controlling what they can individually control.
In the baseline fitness evaluation that kicked off the preseason, the group came in with the highest level he’s ever worked with.
“This group is pretty unique in that they all genuinely get along,” Fendryk said. “So they’re all really comfortable with each other and from a soccer perspective, they know exactly what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are and that helps them adapt to all the different situations on the field and expectations.”
Amped for their home opener against Archbishop Spalding on Aug. 31, the Patriots set a pace that proved too difficult for the Cavaliers to match. Petty and Rugel pressured the visitor’s back line to create scoring chances. Smith, the Patriots’ backbone at center back, made a spirited run forward with the ball that went for naught.
The Patriots have a firm belief that if they outwork opponents and consistently win one-on-one battles, their talent will prevail.
Against Spalding, they remained persistent and were rewarded with a late first-half goal that was followed by two more in a sturdy 3-0 win.
“Confidence and trust,” said senior Ian Wagner, another key cog in the middle. “If we have confidence in our ability and put trust in each other, I always think we can execute our plan.”
Last season, senior-laden Calvert Hall went 24-0-1, won a second straight league championship, and not only finished with the area’s No. 1 ranking but also a share of the country’s top ranking.
The Cardinals’ only blemish came in a 3-3 tie at John Carroll during the regular season and then they had to overcome a 1-0 deficit against the Patriots with a late tying goal and overtime winner to repeat as champions.
Last year, as a largely underclassmen group, the Patriots were able to hold their own against one of the country’s best.
The MIAA is once again loaded with talent with the Cardinals ranked No. 2, followed by No. 3 Loyola Blakefield, No. 4 McDonogh and No. 6 Archbishop Curley among the contenders.
In John Carroll, McDonogh coach Brandon Quaranta sees a league opponent that has an ideal blend of talent, unity and work ethic.
“Last year, they came of age,” said Quaranta, whose Eagles have won 10 league titles. “When they were sophomores and some of the better programs played them, we kind of exposed their youth and inexperience. They got through that, grew up as juniors and now they’re in position and their goal has to be to win the championship and get over the top.
“It’s been a four-year process for that group and they put a lot of time, effort and resources to get into this position, and now it’s all about figuring out a way to close it out.”
Can the Patriots produce a season similar to what Calvert Hall enjoyed last year?
Smith believes so.
“It’s just our will,” he said. “If we want to go out and do it, we definitely can. It’s just how bad the boys want it. I think we can make it happen.”
Along the way, the Patriots are certain to savor the promising ride.
“Definitely just cherishing every memory and spending time with the guys,” Supan said. “One day you’re a freshman and the next you’re a senior, so we know we want to cherish every single moment we have.”