Coaches often speak of "rebuilding years," when athletes lay the groundwork for a great season.
Last year, the College of Southern Maryland's men's soccer team finished 14-4-1, ending the season with a one-goal defeat in the regional finals to the Community College of Baltimore County at Catonsville.
This year, the Hawks have an even better record and a high national ranking. However, last season has held few lessons for these players.
None of them was on the team last year. They're all freshmen.
"The lowest [number of returning players] I've had so far was six or seven. It's kind of odd," Tony Galeano, in his fourth season as the team's coach, said last week. "But this is the closest team we've had. This team here -- they work very well for one another."
The team was ranked 12th in the latest National Junior College Athletic Association poll, the team's highest ranking under Galeano, who has been named regional coach of the year two times.
Because Southern Maryland is a two-year school, turnover from year to year is higher than that of four-year schools. Still, a complete overhaul of the roster is rare.
"I look at it this way: It's the best thing and the worst thing about it," Galeano said. "If you have a player that drags the team down, he's not around very long. But once you get a chance to really mold a player you like, he moves on."
Galeano played for the Hawks in 1994 and 1995 under Carlos Silva, who led the team to two regional championships, 10 consecutive 10-win seasons and a trip to the national championship tournament in 1993.
"The season started early for us, at the beginning of August, so we spent that month coming together as a team," said player Cullen McKenzie. "Since it's an all-freshman team, we wanted to show people what we were worth."
On Thursday, the Hawks wrapped up the regular season and had their ninth consecutive victory with a 2-0 win over Potomac State College of West Virginia. The team won the state championship with its 15-1-1 record and received a bye in the first round of the Region XX tournament, which began yesterday.
Ben Waldmann, who is from London, came to the college after hearing about the Hawks' reputation from players in Britain.
"I heard this school has a strong soccer program and that Maryland as a state has many strong programs," Waldmann said.
The experience has more than lived up to his expectations, he said. "We play so well together. There are no stars," he said.
But if there are no stars, there certainly are standouts.
Michael Shifflett, the team's feral-looking goalie, with his shock of blond-and-brown hair, recorded his seventh shutout of the season against Potomac State, an effort punctuated by a remarkable diving save on a corner kick late in the first half.
The constant offensive threat of Dario Paul, the team's leading scorer, was evidenced by the rough double and triple coverage he received. Paul left with a minor injury late in the first half but returned in the second, only to suffer a kick to the midsection by an opposing player, which drew a yellow card.
Paul shrugged off any suggestion that he was being roughed up. "That's okay; that's an everyday thing for me," he said.
After being kicked, he scored a goal off a header.
"The way they play off the pass is a thing of beauty," said Potomac State Coach Patrick Brett. "It's a pain, but it's a beauty."
The Hawks' only blemish this season came against Louisburg College of North Carolina. The second-ranked team in the nation defeated the Hawks, 7-1, last month. Many Southern Maryland players acknowledged that they didn't play well and noted that it was their third game in four days.
"I am looking for that rematch, though," Paul said.
If the Hawks win the regional tournament, they will play the winner of the Region X tournament, which is likely to be Louisburg.
Should the Hawks advance, they will earn a berth in the NJCAA Division I Men's Soccer Championship scheduled for Nov. 17-20 in Tyler, Tex.
It would be a new experience for everybody in this season of new experiences.