Glenelg Coach Dean Sheridan doesn't see a standout sweeper when he watches junior Alissa Bourne muscle the ball from forwards or use her deft touch to deliver a perfectly placed outlet pass.
"I see a quarterback out there," he said. "That's what she is. Everything we do, even offensively, starts with her. She's the one who makes all the calls and then gets it to the people in front her. It's her game to run."
Bourne might not be the best player in Howard County, but she is probably the most valuable member of a team that expects to contend for its second state title in five years.
Consider: Bourne started the first 14 games last year as Glenelg compiled a 9-3-2 record and just missed winning its first county title. Then she contracted mononucleosis, and Glenelg, which a few weeks earlier had dominated Atholton in a 4-0 regular season victory, failed to score during regulation against the Raiders in a Class 2A South Region semifinal, losing in penalty kicks.
"She's a huge part of our team, and when we didn't have her, we got off track," said senior stopper Alex Mundy. "She controls the game for us, and when we didn't have her, it really showed."
Sheridan has groomed Bourne to become the team leader since the first day of tryouts as a freshman, when he noticed her challenging older teammates. Bourne has inherited the role from Meghan Haspert, an All-Met midfielder last fall who will play for Mount St. Mary's this year.
Sheridan also saw how Bourne stood out in the classroom, where she has a 4.1 weighted grade-point average and was recently selected as one of 20 students to participate in the school's Independent Research Program. Bourne will spend the year studying the housing market in Columbia, examining why real estate prices have skyrocketed in recent years.
"Her intelligence is a big reason she rarely makes a mistake out there," Sheridan said. "She's a very smart girl who knows the game. Soccer at this level is played very fast, and players a lot of the time have a split second to make a decision. I'm confident Alissa can make the right choice."
So are her teammates. Glenelg is one of the county's most experienced teams despite fielding just three senior starters -- forward Kristen Krammer, defender Michelle Lacey and Mundy. Bourne knows every time she looks upfield, there will probably be someone capable of putting the ball in the goal.
"Anytime we can get open, we know Alissa can get us the ball," said forward Amanda Feaga. "She's plays a big part in what we do."
The Gladiators feature two of the county's top midfielders -- juniors Feaga (13 goals, four assists) and Diana Apel (three goals, seven assists) -- and the presence of forwards Brittany Devereaux (seven goals, six assists) and Krammer (six goals, five assists) round out what could be one of the state's most potent attacks.
"I think having the teammates I have should make it easier for me," Bourne said. "We have a lot of players back who really didn't like the way our season ended last year. I try not to think about it anymore. I don't think defenses will be able to focus on stopping just one player -- we have a lot of players who can score."