Team seedings hold little value once the state playoffs begin, says Old Mill soccer coach Bruce Sponsler.
And that's coming from the coach of the top-seeded Class 4A/3A girls team.
The Patriots and fourth-seeded Centennial of Howard County meet at 7:30 tomorrow night at Glen Burnie High School, after the 5:30 p.m.matchup between No. 2 Chesapeake and No. 3 Dulaney of Baltimore County.
The two winners vie for the 4A/3A state championship the following Saturday at Arundel.
Sponsler's theory is most applicable to his game against Centennial, 14-0 and ranked No. 1 in the Baltimore metro area by The Sun. The Patriots, also 14-0, are second in the poll.
Centennial's drawback in the playoff seedings was a schedule threaded with lower-classified teams like Hammond (2A) and Wilde Lake (1A). Never mind that both opponents are 2A/1A state semifinalists and that the 3A Eagles beat both soundly, 4-1 and 5-1, respectively.
The seedings are determined by the average points accumulated for eachvictory during the regular season. And Old Mill, with wins over 10 4A schools, outdistanced the Eagles, 7.75-6.33.
All of which means little to the principals involved.
"Once you get to the final four, you're dealing with region champions, all four of them," Sponsler said.
The Patriots must deal with a Centennial team very similar totheir own, with each relying heavily on sophomores and juniors.
The Eagles have only two senior starters: co-captains Becky Joeckel, asweeper, and Corina Riismandel, a midfielder. Old Mill counters withfour: halfback Amy Tolley, fullback Jennifer Bostak and forwards Teri Lee and Terri Bogle.
Another senior, keeper Amy Drapalski, shares time with sophomore Jackie Bardelli, and Sponsler said Tuesday thathe still hadn't decided who would start tomorrow.
"We'll see how practice goes," he said.
Among Centennial's leading scorers are juniors Vicky Brunt (13 goals, eight assists), Natalie Rich, Kelly Butler and Mary Ellen Carullo and sophomores Shara Boonshaft and Alison Beilski.
This leaves Sponsler with the dilemma of who to key on. Hehas one of the county's best markers in junior halfback Cindy Parulis, but where does he assign her?
He jokes about wanting to mark eight Centennial players, "but you can't do something like that. It would be an abrupt change in our normal game plan. So, the maximum is two kids," he said.
"A lot of them can hurt you. We might have to mark kids in different situations. They have so many specialty players,ones who do direct kicks well, take corners well."
And defend well. Led by sophomore keeper Laura Bradburn, who has seven shutouts, the Eagles have allowed only nine goals all season, while scoring 59.
The Patriots, meanwhile, have scored 61 goals and given up seven. Only Franklin, a 3-2 loser in the regional semifinals, has tallied more than one goal against Old Mill. And those two came in the last 10 minutes.
"Our defense really is the key to our success," said Sponsler, who has won two state championships, the last in 1987.
That'ssaying a lot, considering that his offense includes the county's leading scorer in sophomore Michelle Salmon (23 goals), plus Bogle (12 goals, five assists) and Lee (10, five).
Salmon, who netted all three goals in the win over Franklin in the Region II semifinals, failedto score in regular-season victories over Broadneck (3-1), Severna Park (2-1) and Chesapeake (1-0). But others have stepped forward.
Bogle has five goals in her last four games, including two in a 4-0 win over Eleanor Roosevelt in the regional finals. Lee scored two goalsagainst the Bruins and recorded a hat trick in a 3-0 victory over Meade.
"The kids are really picking up for each other. They've done that all year. We're not one-person dominated," Sponsler said.
"ToMichelle's credit, she does a lot with the ball and creates a lot ofoffense. If she's being marked, she doesn't get frustrated. She doesn't give up after the first 10 minutes of getting marked, like some players do. That's the sign of a good player."
Old Mill lost to Oakland Mills of Howard County in the state semifinals last year, 4-2, but Sponsler said his present team is "a little bit better."
"The defense is a little tighter," he said, noting the inspired play of fullbacks Bostak, Nicki Matters and Lisa Gallicchio and sweeper Lori Lynch.
And once again, the Patriots have the added incentive of playing a team from Howard County, an area widely regarded as the hotbed of soccer.
"We're not just playing for the school, but for Anne Arundel County," Sponsler said.
"It's just a real big game. For us, it's the biggest of the year; the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the area. We think they're good, but we think we're good, too."
Centennial coach Rich Pizarro said, "Most people seem to think that this game willmake the state championship game anti-climactic. They're saying thatit might as well be the final. But that's kind of like counting yourchickens before they hatch."