Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2007

Soccer: Long live the kings

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laurie dewitt⁄the gazette
Poolesville’s Trey McHale (8) fights for possession against Pocomoke’s Lane Kolbush during Saturday’s Class 1A state final. Though the Falcons lost in overtime, the county came away with two titles as Magruder and B-CC won the 4A and 3A crowns, respectively.
So which is most telling about the boys soccer season that was in Montgomery County?

Is it the team that won only three games all regular season coming within 15 minutes of a state title?

Is it the storied program that had experienced some lean years rebounding in a big way?

Or is it a dominant team producing the most lopsided state finals win in eight years, despite its leading scorer watching the game from the stands?

That was the scene Saturday at South River High in Edgewater. Montgomery County schools occupied one of the benches in three consecutive state boys soccer finals, winning two titles and losing a third in overtime.

Producing champions in the Class 4A (Magruder) and 3A (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) divisions, and a runner-up in 1A (Poolesville) reinforced what the county’s soccer community has long believed — that the state’s best soccer is played right here.

For evidence, there was no need to look beyond the 4A division, where Montgomery County had produced at least a co-champion in seven of the last eight years. Class 4A is the state’s largest, and currently home to over half of Montgomery County’s public schools.

On the other hand, there were signs that the balance was tipping. Until Saturday, the county hadn’t produced two champions in the same year since 2001 — coincidentally, it was the same two schools, Magruder and B-CC. While the county was annually dominating the large-school division, it hadn’t tasted success in 1A, 2A or 3A in some time.

What’s more, Montgomery County’s 4A teams were split into two regions in 2005 and ’06, yet in neither year was there an all-Montgomery state final. Club soccer, once centered in Bethesda and Potomac, has spread throughout the state. Clubs in Baltimore and Columbia, especially, attract top-level players, meaning more opportunities for athletes in those areas to play with and against the best.

Rather than cream of the crop, Montgomery County seemed trending towards status as first among equals.

Then came Saturday.

First up was Poolesville, which finished fifth in its six-team division during the regular season.

‘‘It’s almost not even fair [playing in Montgomery County], but there’s a good side to it,” Poolesville senior Mark Fales said. ‘‘They see that we’re the ninth seed, and they don’t expect the ninth seed to do anything.”

The Falcons have always fared better against like-sized schools in the postseason; still, they’d only reached one previous state final, in 1994. Saturday, playing two-time defending champ Pocomoke, Poolesville darn near won it all. Fales’ first-half penalty kick stood up until the final 15 minutes, when Pocomoke scored to send the game to overtime, then won with a golden goal.

Next was B-CC, which won six regional titles and one state crown between 1997 and 2004. The Barons had long been the county’s best smaller-school hope, but fell on hard times the last two seasons.

This year, they returned with a vengeance. After surviving a competitive 3A West Region, the Barons won the state title over Bel Air with a wicked second-half strike from David Williams.

‘‘I thought the teams from Montgomery County we played in the playoffs were much harder games,” B-CC junior Ethan White said. ‘‘Watkins Mill was probably the hardest team we played all year, besides Whitman, which is 4A.”

Finally came Magruder, which won the annual war of attrition that is the 4A West Region. Just a year ago, the Colonels produced an undefeated regular season, only to fall in the regional semis.

This year, unbeaten again, they emerged from the region, and the rest was made to look easy. The Colonels belted Perry Hall, 5-1, to make it eight out of nine 4A titles for Montgomery County.

‘‘Basically, we said that it’s ridiculous to be 18-0-0 in anything,” Magruder coach Steve Pfeil said. ‘‘Virtually no one, at any level, goes 18-0-0 in anything anymore. ... But if there’s any group that can deal with that, it’s this group.”

Over seven hours Saturday, three county teams put on an impressive display against the rest of the state. Was it just a one-year deal? Or a statement that Montgomery County boys soccer is back (or still) on top?

White has his opinion.

‘‘I think Montgomery County having three teams here is pretty big,” he said. ‘‘It’s way up from where it was.”