By Brent Kennedy
On the heels of a 3-1 loss to Mt. Hebron Sept. 18 that dropped River Hill to 1-4 on the season, the Hawks' second-year coach sat with his group of 20 varsity guys in a storage room for over an hour figuring out what was to become of the season.
"We talked about everything; what was going wrong, why it was happening and what needed to change," Shagogue said. "And one of the biggest changes I made that day was that I decided we were going to move Jake (Pace) from forward, back to stopper. We simply needed his presence in a position where he would be getting more touches."
For Pace, a junior coming off a sophomore campaign where he had scored a team-high nine goals, it meant a move to a position he had only played as a freshman on the junior varsity team. But, with the team struggling, he said he was willing to play anywhere.
"I knew the team needed me back there, and the priority from day one for me was helping us win games," Pace said. "My mindset was do whatever it was going to take to turn us around."
Amazingly, as if a switch had been flipped, things immediately did turn around. The Hawks beat Centennial, 2-1, in their next game and then never lost again.
When all was said and done, there were 16 straight wins to go along with county, region and state championship trophies. And at the forefront of it all was Pace.
Eventually settling into his position as the team's center midfielder, following a handful of games at stopper, Pace finished the year with nine goals and nine assists. In addition, he helped the Hawks' defense close the season with 10 shutouts and allow only five goals in the final 14 games of the year.
It was that ability to impact the game all over the field that has earned him this year's Columbia Flier/Howard County Times Player of the Year honors.
"You look at our turnaround and Jake's move, there's a clear correlation," Shagogue said. "He simply dominated the middle of the field for us this season. It's not a stretch to say that he won 85 to 90 percent of the 50-50 balls in his area, which is simply remarkable."
A spring and summer of playing in the Olympic Development Program, growing a couple inches and putting on 15 to 20 pounds of muscle had Pace already among the county's elite before even stepping on the field this fall. Before long, his big frame was making it difficult for defenders to get around him and also making him a force on ball's in the air.
It all added up to Pace finishing this season with as many goals as the previous season, despite no longer playing up top. The real story, however, were the assists.
After registering none as a sophomore, he registered a team-best nine assists this fall.
"Last year we didn't have that second goal scorer, and basically if we lost I felt like it was because I didn't score," Pace said. "But this year, there were so many options. I could focus just as much on setting up guys like Jon (Talbot) and Eric (Cates), as I did on finishing myself."
By the time River Hill reached the state championship game against Loch Raven, the Hawks' offense was working like a well-oiled machine and provided just enough punch to outlast the Lions. After playing to a 2-2 tie during regulation, Pace found a way to produce the game-winner.
Rising above a crowd in the box on a corner kick, Pace redirected the ball into the left corner of the net to win the state championship and make River Hill the first team to score more than two goals on Loch Raven all year.
"Jake was the player of the year before that goal, but that was kind of the icing on the cake," Shagogue said.
Named to the All-County first team are:
Josh Chelleh, Long Reach. Marriotts Ridge coach Kevin Flynn called Chelleh the county's most dangerous player, pointing out, "He was the one player that we specifically game-planned against this season." But as the Mustangs, and everyone else around the county, found out no matter how you prepared for the speedy junior, he was going to find a way to get to goal. Chelleh was the lone goal scorer for the Lightning in games against Marriotts Ridge, Centennial, Chapelgate (two goals) and Hammond. He used those efforts to finish the season with a team-best eight goals and two assists and help his team to a 5-4-1 county record.
"With his speed, ball-handling and ability to finish with both feet, Josh is able to create chances that most players wouldn't even think about," coach John Horner said of his captain. "He's only a junior, but he's been there since his freshman year, so he has as much experience as anyone and it shows."
Jon Talbot, River Hill. After not scoring in the first seven games of the season, partially because he started the year coming off the bench, the sophomore ended up finishing as the county's leading scorer. His 14 goals, which went along with six assists, were five better than any other public school player in the county. Even better, the scores came when his team needed them the most, with six coming in the state playoffs. His final goal of the season was River Hill's first goal in the state championship against Loch Raven, where he dribbled around two defenders before slipping the ball under a diving goalie.
"He's a goal hound, a pure scorer in every sense," coach Matt Shagogue said. "Toward the end of the season he was making defenders look silly, making them think he was going one way and then going the other, and it's amazing to think he's only a sophomore. You could see the confidence growing and growing. It's scary how good he can be."
Abbas Ebrahimnejad, Hammond. A more natural defensive midfielder, Ebrahimnejad was asked to push up more into the attack for the Golden Bears this season after 15 players graduated from last year's state championship squad. The senior took the move in stride, demonstrating superior ball control, field sense and leadership in a rebuilding year.
"It was a big adjustment, going from a team of all seniors to where he was the main guy," coach Jeff Reinoehl said. "The record doesn't show it, but he was tremendous in that lead role. Everyone knew we were going to lean on him, yet he was still incredibly difficult to stop."
Among the highlights, Ebrahimnejad assisted on the team's lone goals in a win over Reservoir and a tie against Centennial.
Cory Marcon, Oakland Mills. Coach Brett Cutler knew his young team's success this fall rested on Marcon's shoulders, so he gave his senior sole ownership of the leadership reigns from day one.
"This was the first year I've named only one captain, but Cory is the kind of player that warrants it," Cutler said. "He leads both by example and vocally, and he's been through a ton. If you look at the growth of the program, it matches Cory's growth as a player. Every year he got better, so did we."
Marcon's play this season, which included eight goals and five assists, helped the Scorpions reach the county championship game and the 2A South Region final after finishing with only one county win three seasons ago. A midfielder with a scorer's mentality, Marcon wreaked havoc all over the field. In late September, starting in the team's game against Long Reach, he scored at least once in four straight contests.
Phil Martinelli, Marriotts Ridge. "The engine that (the Mustangs' team) runs on," according to coach Kevin Flynn, Martinelli was everywhere this season for a squad that produced its first winning season. His scoring numbers were among the county's best, putting up seven goals and nine assists. He, along with forward Josh Stover, created a great one-two punch that accounted for over half of the team's offensive production. However, the junior was just as important as a leader, serving as a captain for the second straight season.
"Phil's been in the leadership role for us since he came to the school, whether it was as a freshman or JV or the last two years on varsity. It's something that comes naturally for him," Flynn said. "His desire to win and work rate are everything you'd want in a captain. I think now the next step for him is to help us make a run at a state title, kind of like his brother (Justin) did his senior year at Mt. Hebron."
Garrett Nickles, Mt. Hebron. After getting off to a quick start, Mt. Hebron struggled down the stretch this fall, but Nickles still found ways to shine. A key part of the run to a state championship last season, the junior was named a captain this fall and asked to move around a lot between the midfield and striker positions. He consistently produced, netting seven goals and seven assists.
Arguably his best game, though, came in the first round of the playoffs against North Point, where he registered two goals and an assist.
"He's very well-rounded and makes great decisions with the ball, which is why I think you saw him excel in everything we asked him to do," coach Mike Linsenmeyer said. "Playing that central midfield role, in particular, I think you saw him grow up as a player and it's something that will benefit us next year."
Eric Oates, Centennial. For coach Jim Zehe, who returned as the Eagles coach after a two-year absence, having a four-year starter such as Oates to lead the way was quite the luxury. A returning second team all-county player from last season, the midfielder was already the team's best ball-winner defensively. He built on that this year, also becoming Centennial's top goal scorer on offense. His seven goals and two assists, along with his ability to possess the ball, were crucial to the team finishing 6-2-2 in the county and 11-4-2 overall.
Included in Oates' highlights was scoring the game-winning goal in overtime against Howard in the regional semifinals.
"That goal summed up everything that makes Eric such a great leader for us," Zehe said. "The ball deflects off the goalie and Eric, because he never gave up on the play, was right there to clean things up. That hustle is what wins games and it's great for the other guys to see him as a captain giving that effort."
J.T. Bowers, River Hill. The Hawks' center back led a unit that allowed a county-low six goals during league play. And when the competition got tougher, so did he. Some of his best efforts came against Oakland Mills in the county and regional championships, where he shut down Cory Marcon, and in state playoff shutouts of Calvert and Liberty, two teams that had been shut out a combined one time in the regular season. Bowers' play was even more crucial considering the Hawks' other three starting defenders and goalie had no varsity experience prior to this season.
"He shut down everyone that he came in contact with," coach Matt Shagogue said of Bowers, who also had three goals and three assists when pushing up into the attack. "We never man-marked with him because we wanted to keep him free to push over wherever he felt necessary, and I think that made everyone else better. The guys knew J.T. was behind them to cover for any mistakes."
David Jannati, Oakland Mills. Everyone gets caught up in Jannati's flip throw, which according to coach Brett Cutler allowed the Scorpions to "play any throw-in from inside 30 yards like a corner kick," but the junior's defense was just as impressive. A sure-tackler with a great field sense, Jannati maximized every bit of his 5-foot-5 frame.
"His ability to judge and go after balls is unbelievable," Cutler said. "It's those instincts that actually also make him very good in the air despite giving up a lot of height. He figures out where he needs to be in order to get the ball before the other guy even leaves the ground."
Jannati finished with only three assists on throws, but his abilities on the sideline paid dividends in other ways, including getting the ball out past midfield when Oakland Mills was pinned deep in its defensive end. The Scorpions posted nine shutouts this season with Jannati leading the group in the back.
Paul Killian, Marriotts Ridge. Statistics don't tell the whole story for the Mustangs' junior goalie. Killian allowed 13 goals on the season, but three of those came on penalty kicks and "none of the balls that got by him were cheap goals," according to coach Kevin Flynn. Tall and athletic, Killian built a reputation of making the acrobatic save, surprising even his coach sometimes.
"We lost our top defender (Nick Koutrelakos) midway through the season, so there was a ton of pressure on Paul and the rest of the defense," Flynn said. "He stayed steady, though, and what makes him special is that he's one of those guys that can change games. There were shots that he would stop that some college keepers couldn't have gotten to."
Killian was also able to showcase his natural soccer abilities during the playoffs, when, against Douglass-PG, he played in the field and scored two goals.
Daniel Koch, Reservoir. The Gators didn't find out about the foreign exchange student from Germany until two weeks before the season, but immediately reaped the benefits of his imposing presence between the pipes. The Gators posted shutouts in three of their first four games, setting the stage for a season where Koch posted six shutouts and the program finished with the lowest goals against average (1.0) in its short history. Koch's best effort, coach Ivan Croft said, came in their 2-0 win over Marriotts Ridge, where he stopped eight shots.
"They had yet to be shutout and he broke down a couple real quality scoring opportunities," Croft said. "Honestly, he was big in all our games, including games that we lost. It was a situation where the guys felt with him back there he was going to make sure we were always in position to win. There were only two games this season he allowed more than two goals, and one of them was our first game."
E-mail Brent Kennedy at Brent Kennedy@patuxent.com