While Centennial and Wilde Lake of Howard County are favored to win state boys soccer championships Saturday at Old Mill, unbeaten Towson (15-0) faces a stiffer challenge to earn respect for Baltimore County.
Centennial (13-0-2) is ranked No. 1 in The Baltimore Sun poll and, even though Thomas Stone (14-0-1) is seeded ahead of the Eagles for the Class 3A tournament championship (5 p.m.), anything but a Centennial victory will be considered an upset by local soccer fans, in general, and by Centennial fans, in particular.
No wonder. Centennial has won three state titles. Thomas Stone has never won a state soccer championship. In fact, it is the first Southern Maryland team to play in the finals.
Striker Josh Baer leads defensive-minded Centennial in scoring (18 goals, seven assists). The Eagles had seven shutouts this year, allowing no opponent other than Atholton to score more than one goal.
Wilde Lake faces similar pressure. Once a power among area soccer teams with four straight state championships (1981-'84), Wilde Lake more recently has seen its fortunes drop along with its enrollment. This year, the soccer program rebounded at the Class 1A level with a creditable 12-2-1 record. The Wildecats face Clear Spring (15-0) at 2:30 p.m. and will be counting heavily on state team players Hamisi Amani-Dove (15 and six) and Matt Nesbitt (14 and 15). Senior Todd Bradford is solid in goal.
Before those games, Towson will kick off at noon against Rockville for the Class 2A title and first-year coach Paul Becker figures his Generals will be tested by Rockville's speed at midfield and left wing.
Fortunately, speed has been a major plus for Towson this season with strikers Ben Donovan and Jon Giordani leading the break.
Midfield is anchored by Mike Henning and sweeper back Sean Fields spearheads the quick backline. Henning uses speed to push forward on attack and Becker rates Fields the most underrated sweeper in the county.
Donovan (17 goals, six assists) is the top offensive threat, but he has been running in the playoffs with a torn calf muscle.
"We expect Ben will be OK," said Becker. "His doctor says he can't do any more harm."
In truth, the Generals have tired of knocking on the door to the state tournament and not getting through the regionals. They have not been to the state finals since sharing the championship with Sherwood after playing 100 minutes of scoreless soccer in 1986. The year before, they lost to Rockville in the state finals.
"This group is happy to be there [in the finals], but they're counting on winning," said Becker.