Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Boys soccer scene has some change to spare

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Magruder senior Michael Lansing (left) is one of the area’s top returning players, for a team that went unbeaten in the 2006 regular season.
The word that defined the Montgomery County boys soccer off-season was change. With an overhaul of the geographical alignment from a year ago, the divisional breakdown in 2007 will look a lot different for the county’s 25 public-school teams.

There will be four divisions instead of the traditional three. The state’s 4A classification also looks different, with the West Region hosting all the Montgomery County 4A teams and Blake, Sherwood and Springbrook moving back in after two years of playing the North Region playoffs.

Perhaps no team suffered (and the word is perfectly appropriate in this case) as much change as Magruder. But it’s not on the field where the change will be seen — in fact, while there will be some missing faces, such as first-team All-Gazette defender Cooper Tilton, the Colonels return most of the star-studded cast from last year’s 4A Central division-winning squad that went undefeated during the regular season. They welcome back their premier playmaker in the middle, senior Mike Lansing. Their identical-twin, yet uniquely talented, Lee brothers, Maryland-bound forward Alex (who led the county with 19 goals a year ago) and Penn State commit Justin, will be in the starting lineup for the fourth year in a row.

But the biggest adjustment will be life without the most familiar face of all, who wasn’t even on the playing field. The untimely passing of former head coach Scott Alexander at age 36, of a brain tumor, on March 26 sent a shock wave through the county’s soccer community and left Magruder with a sudden vacancy in the team’s position of leadership. New coach Stephen Pfeil, who Alexander himself picked to spearhead last year’s junior-varsity squad, will attempt to fill the shoes as seamlessly as possible. And thanks to a standout cast of returning players, he has the chance to repeat what Alexander did six years ago (2001) in his first year in charge: win a state title.

‘‘I’m uncertain and the reason why I’m uncertain is because people deal with the loss in different ways – that’s one of the variables where you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Pfeil. ‘‘My sense is that we have a very, very, confident soccer player at every position, we have a good bit of depth, so the only question for me is, ‘Are we going to be able to put it together when we need to?’”

Walter Johnson put it together at just the right time a year ago, winning five consecutive playoff games and tying Thomas Johnson in the 4A state final to earn a share of the state championship after finishing just fifth in the county’s 4A Central Division in the regular season.

They have the tools to do it all over again. Gazette Player of the Year Lucas Szabo is back for his senior season, along with outside midfielder Austin Miller and goalkeeper Michael Swindale. But the ’Cats know the road will be tougher this time around.

‘‘Reputation doesn’t carry you anywhere, and my attitude is that we have to work harder than last year because we will have targets on our backs,” said Walter Johnson head coach Mike Williams, the reigning Gazette Coach of the Year. ‘‘I’m doing my best to make sure we don’t have a [passive] attitude on the field.”

Whitman also had an unpredictable playoff run last fall, including a defeat of previously unbeaten Magruder to get to the 4A West Regional final. They will dearly miss game-breaking forward Will Vernigor this year, but do get back starters in midfielder John Snyder and back Rodrigo Zuleta in their quest to go a step further in 2007.

‘‘In my mind, there’s going to be about six or seven teams that are all the same,” said Whitman head coach Dave Greene. ‘‘I lost some good players but we have the same goal as several other teams in Montgomery County: win a state championship.”

Churchill has that goal as well, and has the talent to do it. The Bulldogs have an experienced, talented returning cast, including first-team All-Gazette midfielder Neil Vranis, a senior. But head coach Dave Kelley knows it takes more than just ability to pull off a Walter Johnson-like season.

‘‘This year my attitude is really that it’s in their hands, because we under-performed last year with that talent we had on the field,” said Kelley. ‘‘I think this year is not too much different. I’ve seen kids with less talent go a long way because they really believed in one another and I’ve seen players with great talent not achieve because they didn’t have that belief.”

Wootton too has great talent. Foremost on its list of talented players is skilled midfielder Ryan Gracia, for his senior season with the Patriots after spending his junior year at the U.S. National Team’s Under-17 Residency Program in Brandenton, Fla. Gracia hasn’t worn a Wootton uniform since the fourth game of 2005, when a high ankle sprain against Kennedy ended his sophomore season prematurely. He began preseason practice with the team last year, but got the call to join the prestigious national program shortly before the season started.

‘‘His skill level is really at the highest of any player I’ve ever had,” said Wootton head coach Doug Schuessler. ‘‘I would say we have a pretty nice veteran core group, headlined by Ryan.”

Quince Orchard now has more experience than it’s ever had. With 11 returning players, the Cougars have plenty of veterans, but goals to replace. With forces such as midfielder Andrew Boisvert and forward Nick Siebenlist graduated, head coach Jim McEvoy estimates that 95 percent of his scoring is gone. But he does have three-year starting midfielder Rory Carroll back.

‘‘Guys have been through the playoffs and some rough patches, so I’m hoping that experience pays off,” said McEvoy. ‘‘With half the guys as returning letter winners, we should have a chance in every game.”

Rockville would have had 11 wins last year if it weren’t for the suspension of forward Alex Goycochea, the team’s leading goal-scorer through the team’s first five games, whose ineligible presence forced the team to forfeit its first four victories. Though it took some time, the Rams rebounded nicely to pull out five wins anyway. They return five starters, including senior midfielder Fabian Aguilera (eight goals last year), but Rockville will have a bit of an uphill climb.

‘‘It’s somewhat of an unknown quantity of unknown performers, for instance, right now my starting backfield is nonexistent compared to last year,” said head coach Abdel Makhlouf. ‘‘So I don’t know — I’ll be able to tell a little more from our scrimmages.”

Bullis has a bit of an unknown factor this season, as well. Former head coach George Moore stepped down to take an administrative teaching position in Colorado, while All-Gazette midfielder Rodney Wallace is about to play his freshman season at Maryland. The Bulldogs do have big, skilled forward Zach Zimmer back, and hope his unique left foot can lead them to a third straight Interstate Athletic Conference title.

‘‘It’s a young team that lost quite a few players,” said first-year head coach Roberto de Silva. ‘‘But we have about seven or eight starters back, so I think we’ll be okay.”

Georgetown Prep tied Bullis, as well as Landon, for a three-way tie atop the IAC standings at the end of the season, thanks to the heroics of defender and George Mason freshman Fro Adu, whose penalty kick in the season finale against Landon gave the Little Hoyas a share of the crown. Adu is gone, as is Penn State-commit, midfielder Johnny Daniels. But they do bring back a fantastic midfield line, including Andy Reimer, Mike Hocker and Carlos Tienda, which should keep Prep in contention once again.

‘‘Not just expectations, but high expectations is what we have,” said Georgetown Prep head coach Guy Fraiture. ‘‘We look solid right now, and we don’t have any holes per se. So we should be an entertaining team to watch this year.”

Richard Montgomery has to live life without its anchor and best player, All-Gazette first-team goalkeeper Edgar Lopez, who even scored goals for the Rockets a year ago. But led by senior center midfielder Danny Baibe and new goalkeeper Oleg Lurey, they could better than their 4-8-1 record from a year ago.

‘‘Edgar’s a huge loss, but we’re actually more balanced than in years past,” said Richard Montgomery head coach Chamara Wijeratne. ‘‘It’s hard to judge, but I think we’ll give every team more of a battle.”

Fast Facts

Bullis Bulldogs

Head coach: Roberto de Silva, 1st year

Last year’s record: 11-3-1, IAC


League affiliation: Interstate Athletic Conference

Last conference title: 2006

Players to watch: Zach Zimmer (Sr., F), David Thompson (Sr., D)

Churchill Bulldogs

Head coach: Dave Kelley, 10th year

Last year’s record: 11-3-1

Last state title: 2002 (7th)

Players to watch: Neil Vranis (Sr., M), Kevin Dansky (Jr., F)

Georgetown PrepLittle Hoyas

Head coach: Guy Fraiture, 30th year

Last year’s record: 11-3-1, IAC co-champions

League affiliation: Interstate Athletic Conference

Last conference title: 2006

Players to watch: Carlos Tienda (Sr., M), Andy Reimer (Sr., M)

Magruder Colonels

Head coach: Stephen Pfeil, 1st year

Last year’s record: 15-1

Last state title: 2001 (1st)

Players to watch: Alex Lee (Sr., F), Mike Lansing (Sr., M), Justin Lee (Sr., M)

Quince Orchard Cougars

Head coach: Jim McEvoy, 3rd year (13-13-3)

Last year’s record: 7-7

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Rory Carroll (Sr., M), Malu Mbungi (Sr., D⁄F)

Rockville Rams

Head coach: Abdel Makhlouf, 7th year (51-21-1)

Last year’s record: 7-7-1

Last state title: 1996 (7th)

Players to watch: Fabian Aguilar (Sr., M), Phil Dabny (Sr., G)

Walter Johnson Wildcats

Head coach: Mike Williams, 3rd year (25-7-3)

Last year’s record: 15-4-1, 4A state co-champs

Last state title: 2006 (3rd)

Players to watch: Lucas Szabo (Sr., F), Austin Miller (Sr., M)

Whitman Vikings

Head coach: Dave Greene, 12th year (122-58-13)

Last year’s record: 12-7

Last state title: 2000 (7th)

Players to watch: John Snyder (Sr., M), Rodrigo Zuleta (Sr., D)

Wootton Patriots

Head coach: Doug Schuessler, 12th year

Last year’s record: 8-6

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Ryan Gracia (Sr., M), Eli Beavers (Sr., M)