The possibility of winning a state championship seemed remote. Atholton was coming off a 4-7-1 season, had only four returning seniors and never had progressed beyond the regional semifinals.
But Atholton coach Reg Hahne's soccer team came of age sooner than expected by winning the state Class 2A title, beating Fallston in the final, 3-0.
Hahne, 37, has coached Atholton for two seasons after a four-year stint at Wilde Lake. He is The Sun's Coach of the Year for directing his team to a 12-3-1 record, the best in the school's history.
Hahne casually mentioned during the first team meeting in August that the last day of practice would be Nov. 16. The state finals were scheduled for Nov. 17, so the message was clear.
"We all knew what he was trying to say, but we didn't believe it. Not in our wildest dreams," said striker Tony Dedmond (15 goals, 11 assists).
"After the previous year, I really was hoping just for a winning season," Hahne said. "But we had three guys [Todd Bradford, David Kelley, Nick Bostrom] come out for the team that we hadn't expected, and all of them turned out to be good players. So my hopes kept rising."
The hopes continued to rise when Atholton won its first six games, including a 2-1, come-from-behind, overtime victory over Laurel and a 5-0 rout of traditionally strong Archbishop Curley.
The possibility of winning a state title didn't become real, though, until the Raiders played top-ranked Howard scoreless for 73 minutes before they lost, 1-0.
"That definitely was the turning point, because, until then, we hadn't been tested by a high-caliber team," Hahne said.
Two more 1-0 losses to high-powered Oakland Mills and Centennial didn't dampen Atholton's enthusiasm. Nor did a 1-1 tie with Hammond, a game in which the Raiders were missing three starters.
"We had never tasted that before, being able to play with Oakland Mills, Centennial and Howard," Hahne said. For the first time, the team also attracted larger crowds, which prodded the players to perform at a higher level. The fans enjoyed the team's attractive short passing style and never-say-die attitude.
Hahne, a math and computer science teacher at Atholton, grew up in Australia playing soccer (goalkeeper) and water polo, and started his coaching career as an assistant to Oakland Mills' highly successful coach, Al Goldstein, in 1980.
In 1985, Hahne took the head coaching job at Wilde Lake, where he stayed four years and the team compiled a 32-16-2 record. When Atholton's job opened up in 1989, he jumped at the chance to consolidate his teaching and coaching at the same school.
The future never has looked brighter for Atholton soccer, even though the Raiders will move to Class 3A next year. Seven starters, including Dedmond, should return. And the junior varsity, under coach Steve Johnson, won the Howard County title for the first time.