For some people, a limitation might be a good excuse. Not so for Winston Churchill High School junior goalkeeper Emily Thomas, who uses hers — a birth condition left her with an underdeveloped left hand — as motivation.
With a history of strong goalies, Bulldogs coach Haroot Hakopian said his biggest concern entering the 2014 season after graduating a talented goalkeeper for the second straight season was finding another replacement. Thomas, he said, gave him his answer within the first 10 minutes of preseason.
“We knew [Thomas] is a hard worker and she does everything she possibly can to be a great goalie but, like, when the ball is coming really high, we were wondering how she would be able to deal with that,” Hakopian said. “We were just so pleasantly surprised, it’s obvious she worked on it the whole summer. We were sort of thinking about it in a way of, ‘Can she work on that?’ And sometimes [people] can use it as a limitation but Emily was like, ‘I know this is a limitation and I’m going to work on it so you can’t use it as an excuse.’”
While a certain amount of Thomas’ summer training — she got to spend time with Washington Spirit women’s professional soccer team’s backup goalkeeper Chantal Jones — focused on the things she could do to compensate for her condition, Hakopian said Thomas came in to tryouts a better keeper, overall. Everything improved, Hakopian said, including her communication skills, her positioning and her overall tactics.
Part of those tactics, the 5-foot-8 Thomas said, was to become more accustomed to catching the ball rather than just slapping shots away. Getting a good grip on the ball instills more confidence in her teammates, she added.
“I think [Thomas’] work ethic is what really sets her apart,” Hakopian said. “Forget any limitations, she made herself a better goalie. This year Emily came in and she was clearly the No. 1 goalie. And [her condition] wasn’t an issue. It was just, ‘Emily is the best goalkeeper.’ Not, ‘Emily is our best goalkeeper.’”
Churchill’s trust in Thomas will play a major role in the team’s more attack-minded mentality, Hakopian said, as players can push forward with more confidence. The majority of last year’s Class 4A West Region Section I final team — Churchill lost in penalty kicks to eventual state champion Walt Whitman — is back this fall. That core is bolstered by a talented group of freshmen.
Whitman and Churchill will likely remain the teams to beat. The Vikings’ focus early will be on making sure everyone is in the right position, coach Greg Herbert said. Our Lady of Good Counsel has some questions to answer but the Falcons annually reload and return veteran defense and dynamic scoring duo.
Last fall marked the first time in six years that six-time state champion Bethesda-Chevy Chase’s season ended before the state final. Scoring has been an issue for the Barons in recent years but the movement of stalwart defenders Rachel Cady and Denali Minnick up top will give B-CC increased physicality in the offensive third. Two-time state champion Quince Orchard has been on the cusp of its first return to states since 2008 and is poised to remain a major factor with the return of their top two scorers and an incredibly talented playmaker in the middle. Walter Johnson has tended to come up just short against the top teams but with nine returning starters, including their leading scorer, this could be the Wildcats’ year to break out of the region. Thomas S. Wootton had a resurgent 2013 and looks to be ready to reclaim its position in the county’s upper echelon. Sherwood followed up its first-ever state semifinal appearance in 2012 with a region final run a year ago. This is fast and feisty team that has the potential to beat anyone on any given day.
The Academy of the Holy Cross is not at Good Counsel’s level just yet but the Tartans have certainly become a major factor in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference.
Gaithersburg and Northwest are in the same boat, just below the county’s top tier. Both have proven to be competitive with the perennial powers but are still searching for that signature win. With only three returning starters to last year’s 3A West Region final team and a new coach, Damascus is in a bit of a transitional period but it would be dangerous to overlook the Swarmin’ Hornets. Other teams it would be unwise to underestimate include, James H. Blake, Montgomery Blair, Poolesville and Clarksburg.