Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Boys soccer scene has some change to spare

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After leading Paint Branch to the regional finals in his first season at the helm, coach Mike Kogok thinks the Panthers can go further this fall.
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?’”

A team and a coach that has repeatedly shown the ability to unify when it matters most is Sherwood and head coach Hector Morales. The 4A state champions in 2004 and ’05 went just 7-8-1 a year ago, in large part due to the nine new starters that were ushered in at the season’s onset. With their leading goal-scorer from a year ago, Jeffrey Juarez, back in the fold, as well as standout sophomore goalkeeper Drew Hock, the Warriors shouldn’t be mediocre again.

‘‘I think there’s no doubt, that we’re in a better position this year than last year,” said Morales.

Of all the stories from last fall, perhaps none was more surprising than Blair, which won a division title for the first time since 1983 by winning its first 11 games. It was an abnormally good year from an abnormally experienced team, which included an entirely senior-laden attack and midfield.

Because of the graduation losses, the task of repeating last year’s success will be daunting. But with versatile junior Miky Fumes back, as well as DeMatha transfer Matt McLain, the Blazers might sneak up on opponents once again.

‘‘I’m telling them that we did it last year and we’ve got the talent across the board to do it again — that’s what I’m going to shoot for,” said Blair head coach Adrian Baez. ‘‘We may able to pull another rabbit out of our hat.”

Paint Branch was certainly better than normal a year ago — in fact, they were nearly the best. After winning eight of their first nine games, the Panthers stormed through the 3A West Region playoffs all the way to the title game. Though they fell to North Carroll in the regional final, the return of three-year starting goalkeeper Michael Brown and their second-leading goal-scorer, junior forward Edwin Granados, could keep the team in its newly familiar territory.

‘‘I feel like this team has a chance to be a pretty good team, just like we were last year,” said head coach Mike Kogok, now in his second year at Paint Branch. ‘‘We’ve got to be completely focused right from tryouts because now, they’re used to me and I’m used to them.”

The Panthers had as many wins (10) as Northeast Consortium rivals Blake and Springbrook had losses a year ago, though Paint Branch didn’t have to face a brutal 4A county schedule, which is arguably the toughest in the state.

However, both teams figure to be better than the ones that nabbed just two regular-season victories each in 2006. Unlike last fall, Blake has a true playmaker in junior midfielder Jeremy McDonald, who was formerly used on the flank but has the skills to excel in the center.

‘‘He brings a knowledge to the game and a slashing attitude that we didn’t have,” said Blake head coach Rudy Tyrell. ‘‘He’s able to switch the point of attack without me having to demand it, where I don’t have to make him do it.”

Meanwhile, Springbrook returns several of their core players from a year ago, including forward Idrissa Seisse.

‘‘I think across the board, if there’s not an upgrade in talent, there’s a huge upgrade in how quickly we’re able to move the ball,” said Springbrook head coach John Haigh. ‘‘I think that this team is easily a .500 team in the county and if things really come along like I’d like them too, I could see us with eight, nine, maybe 10 [wins].”

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.”

The room for improvement isn’t left solely up to the public-school teams. Good Counsel is looking to put forth a stronger showing than its 3-11-4 finish in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference a year ago. The reason includes exciting junior Tony Todd, the Falcons’ engine in midfield. But also look out for a potentially lethal option from set pieces, 7-foot-1 Julius Omoniuhie.

‘‘He just came out for tryouts out of the blue, and I’m like, ‘OK, this could be good,’” said Good Counsel head coach Julio Zarate of Omoniuhie. ‘‘To be honest, he doesn’t have real solid skills yet, but man, that could be something interesting, you know?”

Over in the Potomac Valley Athletic Conference, Sandy Spring Friends doesn’t have much room to get any better. The Wildebeest have lost just once in the span of consecutive title-winning seasons, and have the weapons to do it again. They are still loaded, with standout junior goalkeeper Sam Schneider and center midfielder Aaron Lewis, who was recently called into the U-23 U.S. Virgin Islands national team.

‘‘He’s the real deal for sure, and he should be the best player in the PVAC, hands down,” said Sandy Spring Friends head coach Eduardo Polon. ‘‘Overall, I think we’ve set a standard now that we feel as a program that people are aspiring to live up to.

Fast Facts

Blair Blazers

Head coach: Adrian Baez, 9th year

Last year’s record: 12-2

Last state title: 1975 (1st)

Players to watch: Miky Fumes (Jr., M), Matt McLain (Sr., M)

Blake Bengals

Head coach: Rudy Tyrell, 3rd year (2-23)

Last year’s record: 2-11

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Michael Sherwood (Sr., D), Jeremy McDonald (Jr., M)

Good Counsel Falcons

Head coach: Julio Zarate, 2nd year (3-11-4)

Last year’s record: 3-11-4

League affiliation: Washington Catholic Athletic Conference

Last conference title: 1989

Players to watch: Tony Todd (Jr., M), J.J. Pezor (Jr., 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)

Paint Branch Panthers

Head coach: Mike Kogok, 2nd year (10-5)

Last year’s record: 10-5

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Edwin Granados (Jr., F), Michael Brown (Sr., G)

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)

Sandy Spring FriendsWildebeest

Head coach: Eduardo Polon, 12th year (124-46-14 record)

Last year’s record: 15-1-1

League affiliation: Potomac Valley Athletic Conference

Last conference title: 2006

Players to watch: Aaron Lewis (Sr., M), Sam Schneider (Jr., G)

Sherwood Warriors

Head coach: Hector Morales, 7th year (63-28-4 record)

Last year’s record: 7-8-1

Last state title: 2005 (6th)

Players to watch: Jeffrey Juarez (Jr., M), Drew Hock (Soph., G)

Springbrook Blue Devils

Head coach: John Haigh, 3rd year (6-19-1 record)

Last year’s record: 2-11

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Idrissa Seisse (Sr., M), Nadjitade Badje (Sr., M)