When played at a high level, soccer can be a beautiful game of creativity that allows players a certain kind of freedom in space — high school soccer fields range in length from 100 to 120 yards and 50 to 80 in width — that athletes in other sports are not granted. There are no timeouts, very little interaction between coach and player during the course of a game, and while coaches do draw up game plans, there are few specific designed plays that players are limited to.
Walt Whitman girls’ soccer might embrace that freedom better than any Montgomery County Public School team.
The Vikings start each game in particular positions but they don’t typically last long. Ninth-year Vikings coach Greg Herbert’s system is predicated on a group of versatile players that can be called upon to fill in any field position when needed, and play it effectively.
Whitman (11-1-1) boasts a marquee player in every area of the pitch. Rice University recruit Aliza Wolfe, whom Herbert described as the most all-around gifted player to come through the program, and Emory-bound Anna Gurney, perhaps the most technical and crafty, control the center. Junior Emma Anderson is an excellent target forward. Senior Emily Martin is a tremendous outside back with an attacking mindset an ability to move forward in space but recently took over as central defender when stalwart back Bahar Ulusan (committed to Emory) went down with an ankle injury and junior Clare Severe, a natural outside back with incredible skill and speed on and off the ball, has been an invaluable utility player since she was a freshman. Severe said playing different positions helps prevent her from getting complacent.
The interchangeability among these players and their supporting cast provides Whitman with a unique dynamic. Bethesda-Chevy Chase coach Rob Kurtz deemed Whitman the county’s most technically talented team earlier in the season and the overall team speed with which the Vikings can implement their style of play — free movement through the course of a game — just creates additional match-up problems.
“It’s nice when a girl says she’ll play somewhere to help her team but to do so and excel, that’s a luxury,” Herbert said. Such a concept is magnificent in theory but executing it requires a lot more than pure soccer talent. The Vikings’ system is reliant on cohesion, communication and trust among athletes — many of these players have been playing together for four or more years as they came up through Herbert’s Pyle Middle School program — as well as a superior level of soccer knowledge and on-field awareness.
“The girls are knowledgeable of the game and now how to adapt,” Herbert said. “They’re not only in tune to their opponent but to each other. They reach each other so well.”
Perhaps the most important part of the equation is that there are no egos. Players are willing to sacrifice their own statistics to do what’s best for Whitman soccer.
For all the Vikings’ recent regular-season success — in 2011 they didn’t give up a single goal to MCPS’ opponents — Whitman hasn’t been able to get out of the Class 4A West Region since its 2005 run to the state final as defending champion. Anderson said staying composed in the biggest of situations might be what’s stood between the Vikings and their second state title. A 3-0 win over perennially nationally-ranked Our Lady of Good Counsel earlier this month should help Whitman realize the brand of soccer it’s capable of producing, Herbert said.
Whitman is the No. 2 seed in the 4A West Region’s Section I and played Montgomery Blair Tuesday night for a chance to play defending champion B-CC or Winston Churchill in the section final. The game ended too late to be included in this edition of The Gazette.
“I told the girls after the win [over Good Counsel] that they should not be surprised by that win,” Herbert said. “This should be the expectation. They know they have the technical ability, it’s can they match that technical ability with mental toughness and grit. They were able to do that [against Good Counsel]. If they can do that in every game from now on...”