Coming into the preseason, neither Winston Churchill High School boys’ soccer coach Arnold Tarzy nor senior center back Teddy Liakakis knew what to expect from their group.
After all, the Bulldogs lost a lot of talented players from the previous season, one that had been a bit turbulent as it relates to locker room chemistry.
“At the beginning of the year we came in, and I don’t think anyone had any idea how we were going to do,” Liakakis said. “Last year, we had a lot of arguments, and nobody really got along on the team.”
That uncertainty was followed by a humbling 6-2 season-opening loss against Marriotts Ridge, at which point Liakakis said he and his teammates drew upon a strong preseason bonding trip to Ocean City and reevaluated in what direction they were heading. Well, eight matches later the Bulldogs sit atop what’s arguably the most difficult division in the state (Montgomery County’s 4A South) with a 6-2-1 record as of Sunday and a growing confidence that they can make a deep playoffs run in 2013.
“We’ve come together, and we support each other now,” senior midfielder Nathan Ferdowski said. “In the preseason, we didn’t know each other yet, but over time we found out each other’s strengths, and since then we’ve been dominating every game.”
In addition to Liakakis and Ferdowski, senior striker JJ Van Der Merwe and senior goalkeeper Tommy Mengucci all have played a crucial role in Churchill’s success to this point. Van Der Merwe, a powerful and imposing 6-foot-1 presence up top, has scored eight goals in nine matches, and the defense has delivered five shutouts thus far. Aside from the slip-up against Marriotts Ridge, the Bulldogs’ only other loss was a 2-1 result against Montgomery Blair (6-1-0).
“I didn’t have any right to come into the season making any predictions about how we’d do, but I have to say I couldn’t have predicted us playing the way we are,” Tarzy said. “I feel like we have some depth and probably the biggest surprise for me has been our goalkeeping. [Mengucci] worked really hard to become more fit, and he’s been able to cover a great deal of area. It’s turned out to be strength where I thought we’d have a weakness.”
Against county competition, the Bulldogs have conceded four goals in eight games and scored nine. Tarzy said he came into the season wanting to improve his defense, and that’s certainly shown to the midway point.
“Everyone knows each other’s weaknesses and strengths along the back line,” said Liakakis. “The communication is 10 times better than it was to start the season. Everyone knows what to say and how to give constructive criticism to one another.”
Of Churchill’s six wins, two have stood out — the first being a 3-0 blanking of Northwest. The Jaguars were unbeaten entering that match but fell flat against the Bulldogs. The second was a 2-1 win against Sherwood on Oct. 1 where the Bulldogs scored twice in the final 20 minutes to snatch the victory.
“Those two games have shown our spirit and togetherness,” Liakakis said. “I think if everyone can keep their heads and keep doing what we do well, I don’t think there’s anyone that can stop us from achieving our goals. But everyone in this county has quality. We can’t forget that.”
Indeed, there’s little doubt Montgomery County soccer on the whole has been unpredictable this season. Every team has at least one loss, and only one side (Northwood) remains winless. There have been blowouts and close games and wacky results that show not only the depth of the county’s clubs, but hint at how wild the playoffs could be. The Bulldogs know that even though they’re in good standing now, if they don’t remain diligent about preparing the same way for every match, it could cost them.
“We can win every game we play, and we can lose every game we play,” Tarzy said. “There are no buts. That’s a statement that stands by itself.”