When Devon Reardon says "it's going to be a good season," she soundslike so many athletes exhilarated by the freshness of a new challenge.
But the challenge before members of the Anne Arundel Community College women's soccer team transcends the playing field. It takes upresidence in their minds, nestles in a corner and won't go away.
Each player is thinking about the one-year probation imposed lastweek by the National Junior College Athletic Association for violations committed under a previous coach. And involving players no longerassociated with the program.
"We're the ones being punished for something we didn't do," says defender Nikki Beall, speaking of sanctions that include a ban on postseason tournaments and individual honors.
School officials learned of the penalties on Aug. 20, after a lengthy investigation that centered on the ineligibility of two formerplayers during the last two years.
But rather than mourn a lost season, the Pioneers are fighting back in their own way -- through a strong work ethic and a set of self-imposed goals.
"We want a winning season like Anne Arundel has been getting, even though we're not going to the regionals," says Beall, an All-American last season. "We could have said 'Forget it, why waste a year of eligibility?' But it wouldn't be right to those girls out there."
Beall points to 12 teammates sweating through a hot Wednesday morning practice under the watchful eye of assistant coach Michele Rodriquez.
Another player, Reardon, sits behind the goal with an ice pack taped to her left thigh, trying to ease the pain of a pulled muscle.
"The coaches said we could take the attitude of just giving up, but everybody decided we're going to do our best and win every game," Reardon says.
"We have an awesome team. We can still turn this into a positive season."
Only Beall and halfback Barbara King return from last year, when Anne Arundel won its third straight Region XX championship. But the recent turmoil has helped unify the players.
"Last year, when we first got together, we had our own little group that we hung out in," Beall says. "Now, it's like everybody's together."
"When we found out, it was disappointing," says right wing Suzanne Driver. "Your goal as a team when you come in is to go to the nationals. That's what you prepare the whole season to do, but that's all changed. But we sat down and talked about it and everybody feels a lot better about it now.We've had time to adjust."
The program already was in a transitional period after Mike Miles' resignation as head coach in February, and the subsequent departure of former assistant Hillory Dean, who hadbeen named Miles' replacement.
Enter James Shuck, who spent the four previous years coaching at South River.
He had been at his newjob for about a week when forced to break the news of the penalties to his team after the third practice.
"I just think they're doing a super job under the circumstances," he says. "I felt it wouldn't have an effect on the two returning players because Barbara was going to Salisbury already and she'll probably will be playing soccer there,and Nikki is heavily into basketball, too.
"The only thing was ifit would be a recruiting problem, and I told the freshmen that if they went and put out a strong season, I felt comfortable the press wasgoing to back us, period, no matter what. And those kind of credentials will carry them into the second year."
Shuck, 47, doesn't regret his decision to take the Anne Arundel job even though he knew the program was under investigation.
"I never thought about it," he says. "My wife had mentioned, 'What if?' But I would have come here no matter what -- I guess unless they said you couldn't even have a regular season. This isn't going to change my outlook on the season and what I'm going to try to accomplish."
Shuck has made one structuralchange, though. He has turned the season upside down, treating the first four games -- against Champlain, Monroe, Mercer and Burlington -- as a pseudo national tournament, and the remaining games as the regionals.
"We're trying to set a goal to be in midseason form a weekand a half from now, when we start playing them," he says of the early matchups, which begin Sept. 7.
"We're going to take them on andtry to win those games, not to prepare to meet them later on in the nationals, but to win them now, since we won't see them later. The girls have set those goals and I think they're realistic."
Reardon says, "I like this team," and Shuck feels the same -- even with the excess baggage.
"There are no dominating players, but they're all very good players," he says. "I know we're going to enjoy the season, and I'm always optimistic. We're going to shoot for the highest level we can."