As members of the Northeast girls soccer team gathered on the steps behind their school Friday afternoon before the start of another practice session, one player spoke of tomorrow's opponent.
"I hear North County's not doing well right now," she said, her voice rising above the surrounding chatter. "Haven't they lost two games and tied another?"
A teammate quickly interjected, "It's still going to be tough, guys."
Much has come easy to the Eagles this season, but third-year Coach Grafton Ray knows the trend won't continue. That's why he welcomed a week's break after last Tuesday's 1-0 win over Glen Burnie.
"Beating them was a big thing for us, but we have a young ballclub," said Ray, who first coached Northeast from 1979 to 1982 and later wona state championship at Broadneck. "(The week off) gives us an opportunity to say, 'Hey, you're not as good as you think you are. We've got to work on some things.' I don't want them to think they're too good."
Then again, who could blame the Eagles for getting caught up in their 3-0 start?
Not only have they matched their victory totalof last season -- when they went 3-9 and lost in the first round of the playoffs -- they haven't even allowed a goal.
Still, Ray says,"To put it bluntly, we don't have a championship team right now. We have the potential to become one, but we don't have a championship team right now."
What he has is a squad loaded with talented freshmen -- four are starters and another a top reserve -- that has taken advantage of some weaker early season opponents to build a gust of momentum heading into tomorrow's game.
"When talking to some people before the season, I jokingly said, 'Pie in the sky, I'd like to see us3-0 after three games,' but I really didn't know how they would play," Ray said. "I could see that we had a future, but all of a sudden I'm saying, 'Hey, we can play.' "
The Eagles opened Sept. 11 with a4-0 win over Queen Anne's and two days later trounced Sparrows Point, 10-0.
The Glen Burnie game, though not as one-sided, was more satisfying. The 4A Gophers had nipped the Eagles, 2-1, in overtime lastyear, and Ray says the latest decision "told us we could play in thecounty."
The Eagles "believe in themselves; they believe they canwin. And if they play hard, I believe we can win," he said.
"We're not going to set the world on fire, but we're going to win our share."
After three losing seasons, senior fullback Jen Vickery would welcome a .500 record. But she adds, "I think if we work hard and practice hard each day, we can go more than .500."
"The freshmen havecome in, and they really know what they're doing, how to play the game," she said. "The seniors are aware of what's happening, and they can coach the freshmen and tell them what they need to do and how to correct themselves. As a team,we're getting to know each other better and we're doing real well."
Of Northeast's nine remaining games, six are against county 4A opponents. That includes North County, a better team than its record indicates, and Chesapeake (Friday), another undefeated team that has not allowed a goal in three games.
And three-time defending state champion Severna Park visits Oct. 4, followed by 3A South River.
"We know the teams are going to get tougher, but if we play like we should play, we'll do pretty good," senior forward Stacy Reynolds said.
Ray said, "We're not going to have any walks from now on. We had a 4-0 game and a 10-0 game, and we're not going to see any more of those."
What he hopes to see is the continued maturity of such freshmen as goalie Kelly Marshall and striker JenJohansen, enough wins to ensure another playoff berth and further progress toward what appears to be a promising future.
"What I'm trying to do is take the girls from being players of soccer to soccer players," Ray said. "And they're working at it because they realize they do have the talent. Northeast isn't the pushover that it was."