Lee High School girls soccer Coach Jim McGraw, after taking over a team that went 19-1 and won the state championship last year, knew what to tell his players in preseason.
"You've seen the movie 'The Karate Kid?' Well, we're the other guy," he said, referring to the favorite that was upset by the underdog.
With McGraw's advice in mind, the Lancers won their first sixgames this season, fending off difficult nonleague opponents in the process, to increase their winning streak to 25 games. With less-competitive Gunston District games coming up, Lee has a good chance of finishing the regular season undefeated.
Still, playing the role of defending champion won't be easy.
"My job has been to get them to stop thinking about the state tournament and thinking about the first game," said McGraw. "Soccer is a tournament sport. It's hard to stay undefeated. We realize there's a long way to go."
"We have everything to lose," said senior sweeper Becky Bonzano, an All-Northern Region player last season. "Last year, no one recognized us. This year, they do."
"It's a lot of pressure," said senior striker Kelly Chervenak, a five-goal scorer who had a school-record 33 last year. "We know every team is out to get us, but I'm not going to let it bother me before a game."
In Chervenak, the Lancers have one of the best soccer players in the Northern Region. "Everybody has Chervenak on their brain," said McGraw. "That's how good she is."
But Chervenak, who scored a goal unassisted from a corner kick this season, isn't the only talented one. The Lancers play two freshmen, as well as other newcomers from a junior varsity team that allowed one goal last season. Sophomore forward Michele Woodside, who scored 22 goals for the varsity last year, has four this season.
"I think we're a little better," said Chervenak. "The freshmen are really good. They have adjusted well. I knew when Holly Hellmuth and Bridgette Dowe came out, they were going to be fine players."
"We picked up right where we left off," said Bonzano. "We're deep. People can go out and the flow of the game doesn't change."
Although five starters graduated, the Lancers have made few changes in style. The program feeds on the fertile youth clubs in the area -- which has made the transition for McGraw, who last coached the boys junior varsity in 1981, a little smoother.
McGraw said he "thought long and hard" about taking the position when Janice Wolfe, who is coaching at W.T. Woodson, left this season. "Because in a sense," he said, "you fail if you win anything less than the state championship."
But, he said: "It's tempting to take over a powerhouse."
The Lancers have been nothing less than a powerhouse this season, outscoring their opponents by 17-2. Included were victories over Robinson, 2-0, and Lake Braddock, 2-1, of the Northern Region, which is evidence Lee can fare well against good teams outside the Gunston District.
McGraw's strategy has been to substitute often, especially at midfield, where he puts in new players every 10 minutes. He also encourages the players to be unselfish.
"I tell them I value assists as much as goals," McGraw said. "If we say Chervenak has to score two goals a game, that might be destructive. The curse of winning is jealousy.
"I had a baseball coach that once told me that if a sport isn't fun anymore, quit it. And that's what I try to stress. I try to make sure they have fun."