Moments after his Spalding soccer team beat Severna Park on Friday night, forward Justin Turco looked up and marveled at the crowd.
About 200 Spalding students had made the 15-minute drive to Severna Park. They'd painted their faces. They'd stood for the entire game. They'd bounced up and down and chanted Turco's name after he scored a goal early in the first half.
"Pretty crazy," Turco said, shaking his head. "At Spalding, we usually only get these kind of crowds for basketball."
Not anymore. Spalding's boys' and girls' soccer teams are the strongest they've been in a decade, and students at the school are starting to take notice. Both Spalding teams plan to make a run at the league titles, the boys in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A conference and the girls in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A conference. And, if early season results are any indication, both have a chance.
"This is the strongest boys' team we've had in probably eight, nine years," Spalding Athletic Director Lee Dove said. "And it's probably the best group of girls we've ever had. This could be quite a year for our soccer. Both teams can dominate."
Take last Friday, for instance:
At Severna Park, the Spalding boys thoroughly outplayed the Falcons, traditionally one of the area's most polished teams. Turco, an all-state player last season as a junior, outran constant double-teams. Experienced senior goalkeeper Kyle Fortman made six saves to maintain a shutout.
The soccer-crazed crowd of nearly 1,000 didn't quite know what to make of the upset. It fell silent for most of the second half. Afterwards, first-year Severna Park Coach Bob Thomas summed up the crowd's mindset. "Boy," Thomas said, "those Spalding guys are good."
Meanwhile, 30 miles away at the prestigious McDonogh tournament in suburban Baltimore, the Spalding girls' team left its opponent similarly slack-jawed. After a sluggish first half, Spalding came from behind to pummel Eleanor Roosevelt, last year's 4A state champions, 4-1.
Katie Schaeffler, a senior forward, quickly erased a 1-0 halftime deficit, scoring twice early in the second half. The Cavaliers scored two more goals in the next 10 minutes and could have scored significantly more, since they took 12 shots in the first 30 minutes of the second half.
"We came out and played like we should, like a team," Spalding girls coach Bob Dietersle said. "Our offense really put it together. We've been working on team building, and these girls have started to play together very nicely."
Already, both Spalding teams have established themselves as two of Anne Arundel's favorites, but they compete mostly against other private schools. Traditional public school powerhouses Old Mill, Glen Burnie and Severna Park should all be strong again.
The Spalding boys' team, just 10-10-2 last season, came out strong in its first game, scaring MIAA A Conference juggernaut Calvert Hall before falling, 3-2. And to think Spalding has played its first several games without Brian Barry, a ball-handling and assist specialist recovering from a broken ankle suffered during the summer.
"This is the strongest group we've had in a while, and when Brian comes back, we'll be even stronger," Spalding boys' coach Ed Kestler said. "We're just getting better soccer athletes in this program, and I think we're showing that so far."
The girls' team has started this season even stronger. The only blemishes in Spalding's first five games came Sept. 7 in a scoreless tie against South River -- during which the Cavaliers hit the goalpost twice -- and Saturday in a 2-0 loss to nationally ranked Bishop O'Connell. Otherwise, Spalding scored a combined eight goals in wins over Severna Park and Arundel.
"This whole team is really close," senior forward Sarah Casey said. "We all get along really well, and we work together. Our chemistry is just really great."
"We're definitely excited," Schaeffler said. "We're trying to start a legacy for Spalding soccer. Every year, we just get a little bit better. That's what we're trying to do."
The girls' team went 14-6 last year, marking Spalding's best record ever. In an effort to improve on that result, Dietersle cranked up his team's offseason workout schedule, giving every player a training book with a detailed schedule.
Kestler tried a similar tactic with his boys' team, forcing players to work out more often during the summer so they would begin the season in better shape.
"You have to sort of make a commitment if you want to succeed," Kestler said. "What it comes down to is that the kids just decided they wanted something different from Spalding soccer. They wanted Spalding to be the absolute best."