If there was one group of players that defined last year's girls soccer season, it was the freshmen. Rarely has such a talented group had such an immediate impact.
For opponents, these eight were more than enough.
The group--Watkins Mill's Noelle Keselica, Potomac School's Jenna Linden, National Cathedral's Phela Townsend, Leonardtown's April Lockley, St. Andrews's Carolyn Ford, Damascus's Melissa Penney, Severna Park's Erin Dubina and Mount Hebron's Julie Napolitano--started every game last year and were integral to their respective school's success.
So how is that so many sophomores are able to contribute right away, especially to the extent of these eight? Most coaches agree it's a combination of talent, coaching and the fact that, with the rise of so many club teams, many of the area's top players are on the field almost year-round.
"The entire metropolitan area is benefiting from a lot of these kids playing on prominent select clubs outside of school for the past five or six years and now the high school teams are reaping the rewards," National Cathedral Coach Richie Burke said.
Of the eight, Keselica kicked her way to the head of the class, becoming the lone freshman to be selected first-team All-Met after recording 35 goals and 12 assists. She was the first freshman selected All-Met since Melissa Deland of Potomac School in 1994.
The 15-year-old midfielder dazzled with her array of offensive moves and her strong defensive skills.
"She's an incredible player, one of the best players I've seen," Wootton Coach Terri Beach said. "Her presence is felt all over the field."
Her presence was also felt by Watkins Mill. The year before Keselica arrived the Wolverines were 1-10-1. Last year they improved to 8-6-1, and averaged 2.3 goals per game. Keselica scored a season-high five goals in a 7-3 win over Gaithersburg in the regional quarterfinals before the Wolverines were eliminated by eventual champion Wootton in the Maryland 4A West regional semifinals.
Perhaps no one was more surprised at her success than Keselica, who was held scoreless only twice last season. "I did not think I could do anything like I did," Keselica said. "I'm not one with that attitude to take over games. I just play to have fun. My teammates helped me tremendously--they gave me good balls."
Virginia public schools play in the spring, and Maryland public schools and private schools throughout the area play in the fall.
School: Severna Park
Strengths: Dubina is an exceptionally quick forward and a solid finisher. She was second on the third-ranked Falcons in scoring last season with 16 goals and nine assists.
Impact on team: She combined with senior Holly Noga (17 goals) to create one of the most formidable offensive duos in Maryland.
Background: She plays with the under-16 Bethesda Fury and under-15 Maryland Olympic Development team. Dubina is also a talented Irish dancer, competing in the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinneworld -- the World Championships of Irish Step Dancing -- the past two years with her sisters, Meghan, 18, a senior at Spalding, and Katy, 19, a sophomore at Lehigh University. The dancing has helped her in soccer. "It helps me with my foot speed and builds up my leg muscles," Dubina said. The sophomore believes that last year's Maryland 4A girls soccer state final, which the Falcons lost, 2-1, to Wootton, was a lot more pressure than the world championships. "It was [more stressful] because the whole team was there and you are doing it for the whole team and not just for yourself," Dubina said.
What needs to be worked on: "I want to improve my all-around play and be more of a positive influence for my teammates. I want to increase my work effort in practice and games and to outwork my opponents," she said.
School: St. Andrew's
Position: Center midfielder
Strengths: Ford can pass, shoot, score, defend and is exceptional taking balls from the air. Depending on the situation, St. Andrew's Coach Glenn Whitman will put her at center back.
"We look for her to do everything," Whitman said. "We need her to score, assist and dominate the midfield. Physically, she can dominate her position better than anyone I've seen in the area."
Impact on team: A second-team All-Met, Ford had a team-leading 20 goals and 15 assists to help send the Lions to the Potomac Valley Athletic Conference championship last season. "She brings the intense desire to win and it picks up everyone around her," Whitman said. "She has great balance between being a superstar and a team player. She's a superstar, but first and foremost she's a team player. That's why were successful."
Background: Ford plays on the under-15 Bethesda Fury, which won the prestigious U.S. Youth Soccer Region 1 championship over the summer, and co-captained the Maryland under-15 Olympic Development team. Ford is a candidate to be selected for the under-15 girls national team player pool. "I need to play as well as I can and really focus to have a chance," she said. Ford also speaks fluent Flemish, the native tongue of northern Belgium. She lived and went to a local school in Leuven, Belgium, in 1991, and returns there in the summers.
What needs to be worked on: "She's going to have to learn to be more tactically savvy to respond to double- and triple-teams," Whitman said. Ford said: "I need to dribble under control and work on my fitness."
School: Potomac School
Strengths: Coach Bobby Johnston calls her "an all-around, strong, prototypical striker." Her ability to score and pass makes her one of the area's most versatile threats.
Impact on team: She led the Panthers in scoring (19 goals) and assists (11), helping the McLean school win the Independent School League tournament last season.
Background: Linden, 15, plays on the under-17 Bethesda Falcons and the under-16 Maryland Olympic Development team, as well as the regional Olympic Development team. She also played on the school's varsity basketball and lacrosse teams. She started at age 4, playing on a boys team. "I played with [boys] until I was 9," Linden said. "I like playing against guys more because it is more of a challenge. They are so much quicker and tougher, it teaches you lessons and you have to be quicker on the ball."
What needs to be worked on: "I'm kind of a lazy player so I need to work on that and I need to improve my decision-making. . . . If I play the ball somewhere, I turn around and see a better option," Linden said.
Position: Outside left midfielder
Strengths: "Her speed and aggressiveness and she has great composure and self-confidence," Coach Jennifer Henderson said. Lockley has tremendous speed down the left flank and was a constant problem last season for opposing defenses.
Impact on team: She scored one goal and had an assist in a 2-1 win against North Carroll that helped the Raiders become the first Southern Maryland Athletic Conference team to win a girls soccer state title. "No one knew about me since I was a freshman," Lockley said. "Coach Henderson said I was the secret weapon last year."
Background: Lockley, 14, plays on the under-17 Southern Maryland Blitz and ran indoor and outdoor track for the Raiders. She started playing soccer when she was about 10 in Omaha. "I had moved to a new town and some girls I had met played. I wanted to meet new people," Lockley said. In her free time, Lockley has begun to ride horses at Moment in Time, an equestrian center in Leonardtown. Although her ball control is effortless, it's a different story in the saddle. "The horse does not always want to listen to you," she said.
What needs to be worked on: Heading. "Last year she would rarely head [the ball]," Henderson said. "She would just trap it with her thigh."
School: Watkins Mill
Position: Center midfielder
Strengths: Her ability to play offense and defense. She's a tremendous offensive player with a repertoire of moves that makes her almost impossible to defend. On defense, the All-Met is just as valuable. "Her moves are just unbelievable," Watkins Mill Coach Troy Bowers said. "I saw her blow by five people in a seven-yard space and, despite running with the ball, she pulls away from them [the defenders] and scores a goal."
Impact on team: Keselica thinks it is her ability to foster the team's cohesion. "I heard years before they had problems coming together and playing but people said I did a good job bringing people together," Keselica said.
Background: She plays on the under-15 Bethesda Fury, which won the Region I title this summer. She played junior varsity basketball last season but plans to concentrate on soccer and academics this year. The first time she picked up a soccer ball was at age 6 with the guidance of her father. "He's the one that threw the idea of soccer at me," Keselica said.
What needs to be worked on: Speed."I'm not as fast as I should be. I'm trying to go outside and do sprints and do workouts from trainers to work on my speed," Keselica said.
School: Mount Hebron
Position: Center midfielder
Strengths: Napolitano has excellent vision, good composure in the attacking penalty area, is a fierce competitor and, at 5 feet 5 and about 120 pounds, has a strong physical presence. "She scored some goals last year because she could take that deep breath, take her time and see exactly where to put the ball," Mount Hebron Coach Jonathan Davis said. "She's a sophomore, but in her ability and leadership, she's older."
Impact on team: An honorable mention All-Met, Napolitano scored 12 goals -- second on the team behind senior Katie Elliott's 16 -- and had seven assists to help lead the Vikings to an 11-5 record. "We won games because she was there," Davis said. "Now she's bigger and stronger. I expect for her to help everyone else get involved."
Background: Napolitano, 14, plays on the Bethesda Dragons in the under-17 premier division. She also participated on the under-15 Maryland state Olympic Development Program team. "My top choice is to play college soccer at the University of North Carolina," she said.
What needs to be worked on: Her coach said Napolitano needs to be quicker getting back on defense. She said she did not always give 100 percent last season. "On my transition from offense to defense, I usually just slacked off," Napolitano said.
Strengths: Penney has tremendous vision, is an excellent passer, an accurate shooter and has a good left foot. "She really doesn't have a weakness," Damascus Coach Larry Nuzacci said. "She's calm, collected, doesn't panic and is cool with the ball."
Impact on team: An honorable mention All-Met last season, Penney led the Hornets in scoring with 23 goals and 10 assists. Her production helped Damascus post an 11-2 record, the first winning season in school history. This season, Nuzacci plans to move her to offensive midfield "to assume a more mature role and be the field general," he said. Said Penney: "I control the game at midfield. I can set up a lot of opportunities for our forwards. Last year, no one even marked me. I know people are going to key on me this year, so I'll have to deal with it."
Background: Penney plays on the under-15 Bethesda Sting of the Washington Area Girls Soccer League first division, and on the Maryland Olympic Development team. She started playing soccer when she was 5, and at 8 played on a boys team for three years. "It was fun playing with guys," Penney said. "Guys were competition. They're quicker, more aggressive and play the game a lot faster."
What needs to be worked on: Her coaches say she needs to be more accepting of the fact that not everyone on the Swarmin' Hornets has the skills she possesses. "She needs to learn to help other players," Nuzacci said.
School: National Cathedral
Strengths: "As a player, my strength defending is playing in the air," Townsend said. At 5 feet 7, she is an ideal sweeper who has tremendous speed and plays with intelligence. Cathedral Coach Richie Burke said she has "an incredible soccer brain." She also has a knack for finding the back of the net, scoring five goals last season.
Impact on team: In Cathedral's loss to Potomac School in the Independent School League final last season, Burke said he read his players the riot act at halftime. Townsend was the first to get up and rally the team. "She stood up and said, `Let's go back out and win this game.' She comes across a nice kid but she is a fierce competitor and that solidified her spirit and nature on this squad," Burke said.
Background: Townsend plays on the under-15 Bethesda Fury. She also plays point guard on the school's basketball team and was a defender on the girls lacrosse team. Townsend also feeds and collects goods for the homeless once a month through her local church. "I think it's really good with the environment I'm in to give that back to the community with people less unfortunate than I am," Townsend said. "It makes me feel really good."
What needs to be worked on: Being more selfish. "Maybe I'm being unselfish too much. That's what Coach [Burke] always says to me," Townsend said.