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Choosing high school over U.S. academy ball, three boys soccer stars are making their mark

The Loyola Blakefield soccer team brought in portable lights Thursday to celebrate senior night as the No. 1 Dons were bidding to complete the program’s first perfect regular season.

Parents were honored before the game, a rowdy student section banged on drums and the first-ever night game at the school even had some early jitters from the home team.

The Dons would find the form that carried them all season, getting a late first-half goal and then buckling down on defense to secure a 1-0 win against rival Gilman. Soon after, players and fans came together as one big jubilant pack to celebrate the team’s 17-0 regular season.

It was high school soccer at its best and senior Chase Webert, a star defender for the Dons, was happy to be a part of it.

Webert and fellow standouts Richie Nichols of McDonogh and Alex Krause of River Hill each opted to suit up for his respective high school team this fall instead of continuing to play club ball for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.

A special night like the one Webert had Thursday is one of the reasons all three are happy they decided to go the high school route.

“It was the biggest, most anticipated game since I’ve been at Loyola and the amount of people and atmosphere — like the first night game at Loyola — that was pretty awesome,” said Webert, who played for the Dons as a freshman before moving on to academy ball the past two years. “All your friends are there, your family and everybody in the community — it’s just really great to see how happy they all were after the game. It makes you want to play for more than the team. It’s about the community, and to win obviously was big.”

This time of the season is another reason why.

All three players have had major impacts on their teams’ success and the stakes grow higher in the playoffs.

Webert has typically been a center back, but willingly moved to right back. And it has been beneficial for the Dons, who earned the top seed in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference playoffs.

He’s provided size and speed to the team’s back line, along with a poised first touch and quality distribution. Playing on the side has also enabled him to often get forward and he’s contributed 14 goals and two assists.

What has impressed Loyola coach Lee Tschantret the most is Webert’s selfless approach.

“I think when you play for a high school team, you’re supposed to be playing for something that’s bigger than yourself,” Tschantret said. “So Chase is showing great teamwork, making that transition without a problem and being super receptive to it.”

Nichols grew up at McDonogh as his father, Steve, was the school’s soccer coach for 17 years before stepping down after the 2013 season.

A sophomore center midfielder, Nichols was always the McDonogh team as a youngster, kicking the soccer ball around with past standouts Chris Agorsor, George Campbell and Mamadou Kansaye while dreaming about the day he’d get the chance to play for the school.

On Friday, in the team’s regular-season finale against Calvert Hall, Nichols provided the first goal to help the defending MIAA A champion and No. 6 Eagles claim a 2-1 win to earn the second seed and a first-round bye in the upcoming playoffs.

Nichols has welcomed the physical play of the high school game compared with playing for his club team, the Baltimore Armour. As he expected, putting on the McDonogh jersey for the first time was a special feeling.

“It’s an experience I’ll always remember — first home game against Gilman, Saturday rain on the turf and more fans than I expected,” he said. “As soon as I put the jersey on with everyone else, it was so awesome. We were in the huddle and there was a sense of togetherness.

“There’s so much passion and you grow more as a person when you’re playing high school. It’s like you’re a team fighting for each other, working for each other and you’d run through a brick wall for each other.”

Krause, a junior forward, has found a similar brotherhood at River Hill. Growing up three minutes away from the school, he watched the Hawks win their share of state titles and was a regular participant at the program’s summer camps.

He’s happy with his decision to play for the Hawks this season, alongside his close friends, with a single goal of winning a state title. After falling in last year’s Class 2A title game, the No. 2 Hawks returned a strong nucleus and Krause has added a dimension up top. Powerful with the ball at his feet and equally adept at scoring or setting up teammates, he had 11 goals and six assists in the team’s 12-0-1 regular season.

“It’s so cool to be able to play for the team that you’ve been watching your whole life,” he said. “Before every game, we always talk about how we can’t go out like we did last year. I wasn’t on the team, but I still feel as if I lost the state title last year — that’s how much I’ve grown with this team and how bad I want it.”

Each player will be able to return to his respective academy club after his high school season is completed. For Nichols and Krause, they will have another decision to make again next season.

While U.S. Soccer advises playing academy ball throughout the year is essential to developing elite players, the high school experience brings other valuable intangibles.

“I think anybody who has played high school sports, those are the games and experiences you’ll never forget,” River Hill coach Matt Shagogue said. “So this is the time to have fun and make memories. I’ll walk them into the gym by the trophy cases and say, ‘Guys, look at this.’ It’s what you can talk about for the rest of your life and bring your kids and their kids back and say, ‘That banner is mine.’ ”

River Hill began its quest for a state title on Tuesday, defeating Howard County rival Marriotts Ridge, 6-2, in Class 2A South region play.

Loyola Blakefield and McDonogh will host MIAA A semifinal games Thursday.

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