Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Boys soccer scene has some change to spare

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Northwest High senior midfielder Mark Jaskolski is one of the best returning players in the county this 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 head 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?’”

Wootton too has the talent to go a long way if it puts it together. 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 core group, headlined by Ryan.”

The Patriots were bitten by misfortune last year, as five of their projected starters were missing by opening day. Conversely, Lady Luck smiled on Northwest for most of 2006, as the Jaguars finished with a 9-1-1 record, the best in school history.

They lose first-team All-Gazette performers in forward Nirav Kadam and defender Kevin Seeger, but return the services of stellar center midfielder Mark ‘‘M.J.” Jaskolski — one of the leaders of the U-17 Baltimore Casa Mia Bays club team, former U.S. Youth Soccer national champions. Along with senior goalkeeper Jorge Pardo, who was behind the Jaguars’ stingy defense last year (they allowed a county-low eight regular-season goals), they should make Northwest a contender again.

‘‘I do wonder, ‘How are we going to compensate for the guys that went off to college?,’” said head coach Kert Mease. ‘‘But I definitely think we can do it.”

After moving to the newly formed 3A⁄2A⁄1A West Division, Watkins Mill will contend for a division title, as well. But like Northwest, the Wolverines have to compensate for the graduation of a great senior class, including first-team All-Gazette performers in midfielder Daniel Ankrah and forward Levi Houapeu. They do return midfielder Kam Zeguiba, and get back senior Ben Hansen, a former two-year starter who spent his junior year in England.

‘‘We did lose 15 seniors, but I think we’re going to be pretty competitive,” said Watkins Mill head coach Jeff Heckert. ‘‘It’s a pretty inexperienced group we’re working with at the moment, but it’s a talented group.”

One of its new rivals in the 3A⁄2A⁄1A West will be Damascus, which may have needed the change of scenery more than anyone after a 3-10-1 season last fall. But buoyed by three senior captains —Adam Hernandez, Jeff Myers and Tyler Wilkinson — the Hornets should be a whole lot better.

‘‘I really think we’re going to have a breakout year this year,” said Damascus head coach Jim Dow. ‘‘I also really want to win a playoff game; we haven’t done that in several years.”

Clarksburg will be joining the Wolverines and Hornets in the division, and is starting its second year as a varsity squad. The Coyotes had an impressive four wins in their opening year, and there could be more to come with exciting midfielder Peabo Doue and Bullis transfer Julio Arjona in the fold.

‘‘It’s also our first year with a senior class,” said Clarksburg head coach Jeremy Spoales. ‘‘I think we’re going to be a factor in every game we play this year.”

Gaithersburg was also young last year. In fact, by the end of the regular season, the Trojans were starting six sophomores and a freshman. But they did have one of the best goalkeepers in the county, Brian Heffner, who will anchor the team in this, his senior season.

‘‘I had him captain as a sophomore,” said Gaithersburg head coach Keith Bauer. ‘‘The kids have all the respect for him because they know he’s the best goalie in the state.”

Unlike the Trojans of a year ago, 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.”

Times are changing at Seneca Valley, where former Einstein head coach Nougais Metellus is ready to take the helm in place of Festus George. He inherits a team that lost its best offensive threat in Tim Kovack, but could be led by equally impressive sophomore striker Oscar Velasquez, to go along with steady senior sweeper Brandon George.

‘‘I think these kids are very talented,” said Metellus. ‘‘We don’t have any big-name players, but we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”

In the private-school ranks, right on the tail of Potomac Valley Athletic Conference power Sandy Spring Friends (the league’s two-time reigning champs) is Covenant Life, which went 12-2-2 last year and qualified for the conference title game. The Cougars lost Sam Furnish, their top goal-scorer from a year ago, but could challenge the Wildebeest for PVAC supremacy thanks to stellar sophomores Alex Allen and Brandon Cannonas up top.

‘‘The expectation is to do even better,” said Covenant Life head coach Bob Buchanon. ‘‘I even more wholeheartedly after a week of practice think that skills-wise this team is much stronger than last year.”


Clarksburg Coyotes

Head coach: Jeremy Spoales, 2nd year (4-10)

Last year’s record: 4-10

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Peabo Doue (Jr., M), Julio Arjona (Soph., M)

Covenant Life Cougars

Head coach: Bob Buchanon, 2nd year (12-2-2)

Last year’s record: 12-2-2

League affiliation: Potomac Valley Athletic Conference

Last conference title: None

Players to watch: Alex Allen (Soph., F), Brandon Cannonas (Soph., F)

Damascus Swarmin’ Hornets

Head coach: Jim Dow, 3rd year (8-19-2)

Last year’s record: 3-10-1

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Adam Hernandez (Sr., F), Jeff Myers (Sr., D)

Gaithersburg Trojans

Head coach: Keith Bauer, 9th year (38-61-4 record)

Last year’s record: 5-11

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Brian Heffner (Sr., G), Victor Cabrera (Jr., F)

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)

Northwest Jaguars

Head coach: Kert Mease, 10th year (39-66-7 record)

Last year’s record: 9-2-1

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Mark Jaskolski (Sr., M), Jorge Pardo (Sr., G)

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)

Seneca Valley Screaming Eagles

Head coach: Nougais Metellus, 1st year, 6th year overall (25-36-2 record)

Last year’s record: 3-10

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Oscar Velasquez (Soph., F), Brandon George (Sr., D)

Watkins Mill Wolverines

Head coach: Jeff Heckert, 7th season (47-29-3 record)

Last year’s record: 11-4-2

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Ben Hansen (Sr., M), Kam Zeguiba (Sr., M)

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)