The seed for Atholton's first boys state soccer championship was planted early.
"Way back at our first team meeting this year coach (Reg Hahne) told us our last day of practice would be Nov. 16," junior phenom Tony Dedmond said Saturday at Old Mill after the Raiders' 3-0, Class 2A win over Fallston.
"And the only way it could be Nov. 16 is if we were in the state finals."
Dedmond, who scored two goals and had an assist Saturday, bringing his yearly totals to 15 goals and 11 assists, spoke with the calm of a seasoned veteran rather than someone who just recently turned 16.
He was astounded that Fallston had elected not to mark him.
"In the only two previous games I wasn't marked. Against Wilde Lake and Curley, I scored three goals both times," Dedmond said. "It didn't seem smart not to mark me."
Fallston (11-2-3) had an All-Star sweeper in Chris Eatough, and Cougars coach Len Petry was confident his backs would be able to cover all threats.
"We've never marked anyone all year," Petry said.
Atholton's other junior forward, Todd Bradford, also had a banner day, scoring one goal and one assist, and missing another goal only due to an exceptional diving save by Fallston goalie Steve Chaires.
Atholton, which compiled its best record ever, 12-3-1, is one of the sensational sports stories of the year, considering it had never reached a regional final before, much less a state final.
Atholton tri-captain and goalie Kori Hunter, one of just four senior starters, played a key role all season for the team, and he made a couple of big saves early in the game against Fallston.
"A lot of credit for winning goes to our defense, especially Phil (Lazzari) and Greg (O'Shea), who were the heart of it," a soft-spoken Hunter said. "And our fans have been great and helped us a lot."
Hunter came out of goal to play forward for the last 10 minutes during a crucial early-season game against Laurel, scoring both goals in a 2-1 comeback overtime victory. He played his most sensational games in goal during 1-0 losses to Howard and to Class 3A state champ Oakland Mills.
It was the Howard game, in which the Raiders held the Lions scoreless until the 73rd minute, that Atholton first grabbed the attention of local soccer aficionados, and served notice they were state title contenders.
"After Howard, I thought we might make it, but we weren't really sure we could win it until after we beat Middletown (3-1) in the regionals," Dedmond said.
"Middletown was the best team we faced in the playoffs," Hunter said.
On the way to Saturday's landmark win, the Raiders survived a mammoth scare in the state semifinal from Gwynn Park, needing a desperation goal by John Walter with 11 seconds left to tie the match at 1-1 and force an overtime. Atholton, which dominated most of that game, eventually won in a shootout in which it outscored Gwynn Park, 8-6.
The Raiders, whose state title will be a big boost to the soccer program and the school in general, built a strong following of fans this year and were well-supported at the championship game.
"Our crowd support was a big plus," said Raider senior reserve forward Sean Savoy. "Some people came to every game."
Savoy said the team was confident Saturday because Wilde Lake had beaten Fallston 4-1, and Atholton had beaten Wilde Lake, 3-0.
"But we tried to put that out of our heads so we wouldn't get cocky," Hunter said.
Dedmond scored the first goal in the 38th minute, when he took a long pass from Swedish exchange student Nick Bostrom, dribbled down the sideline and chipped a shot from 10 yards over an onrushing Fallston sweeper and goalie.
"We had a mix-up in our midfield and they played a quick ball," Eatough said. "He (Dedmond) got into it and finished well."
Atholton coach Reg Hahne was delighted to take a 1-0 halftime lead, because the Raiders had played into a strong wind during that half.
"I knew they wouldn't be able to get through us in the second half," Hahne said.
With the wind at its back, Atholton pounded away at Fallston in the second half, putting six shots on goal in the first six minutes. But Chaires saved them all.
Bradford finally got the game-clincher in the 48th minute, a header from 15 yards to the far post off a throw-in by Dedmond.
"The wind helped them on that one," Fallston's Eatough said. "They got a little flick. If you throw enough balls some of them are going to go in."
Dedmond scored in the 49th minute off a cross from Bradford.
"I was open and just turned and kicked it," Dedmond said.
"Atholton's defense really played well," Fallston fullback Dave Luber said. "It just stopped our offense."
Atholton's backfield included senior tri-captain and sweeper O'Shea, tri-captain and stopper Lazzari, James Waddy and Alex Denno.
The starting midfield included Walter, David Kelley, Brian Yankle and Bostrom.
Only Hunter, O'Shea, Lazzari and Bostrom graduate among the starting players.
Bostrom, Bradford and Kelley all showed up unexpectedly on Atholton's doorstep in August, giving Hahne early reason for optimism he might not have had.
Bostrom came from Sweden with great skills. Bradford had not played last year but was obviously talented. And Kelley transferred from soccer power Calvert Hall, bringing great play making skills.
"Never in their wildest moments when the season began did the players think they could win a state title," Hahne said. "Picking up those three players helped a lot, and the definite turning point was the Howard game.
We hadn't really been tested by a high-caliber team, but after that loss we intensified and didn't look back."
"There couldn't be a better way to go out as a senior," Hunter said.