Columbia Spirit peerless in under-16 girls soccer

January 21, 1994|By Rich Scherr | Rich Scherr,Contributing Writer

What makes the Columbia Spirit such a dominating force in under-16 girls soccer?

Striker Aimee Grahe said it's the intensity the players exhibit throughout every game.

Goalie Megan Boehm said it's the camaraderie -- team members bonding together on and off the field.

For coach John Bagrosky, however, the answer is simpler.

"It's the kids," said the fifth-year coach. "They're our biggest selling point. People are really impressed by them. They're not just great soccer players -- they're great people."

And that's one of the reasons so many of the state's most talented junior players have jumped on the bandwagon over the past few years, transforming the Spirit from an upstart team into a national championship contender.

After winning their age group in the Washington Area Girls Soccer League in 1991 and 1992, the Spirit finished 6-1-2 this season competing in the under-19 division -- against players as much as four years older -- and tied for second place.

Other recent wins have come against the under-16 Eastern Region champion New Jersey Hotshots and defending under-16 national champion Team Boca.

And this spring, the Columbia team will vie for its fifth straight Maryland State Cup. A win would put it among the state's elite and validate its claim as one of the best teams in Maryland rTC history.

With a roster that includes 14 players from the Maryland State ODP select team, eight from perennial Class 3A-4A state finalists Dulaney, Centennial and Severna Park, two from the Eastern Regional select team and one -- Boehm -- who will be evaluated for possible elevation to the U.S. National pool, it's not difficult to see why.

"They're all really skilled team players," said Bagrosky. "Most of them go [into high school] and make an immediate impact. Virtually all of them play varsity ball as freshmen."

Though eight of the 15 players attend Howard County schools, nearly half come from outside the local area, as far north as Harford County and as far west as Washington County.

Grahe, one of the team's top offensive threats, lives in Hagerstown and makes the long journey every Sunday for practice.

"The roads get really boring," said the 15-year-old Williamsport student. "Sometimes it gets to me, but I think all in all it's worth it."

Grahe's story is one of persistence. Since developing an interest in soccer at age 6, she has been forced by circumstance to play in boys leagues -- because there are none for girls where she lives. And because Washington County high schools don't offer girls soccer, she has had to play -- amid some protest -- on Williamsport's boys team.

Playing on boys teams, she said, became a way of life, and greatly improved her skill level. But when the opportunity arose to join a top-level girls team, she jumped at it, spurring several other offers from area teams.

"I went for the Spirit because it's great for my future," said Grahe. "Everyone plays with their hearts, and they go 150 percent all the time. What's more, the players were just so nice and they just invited me to come in and play."

Another of the team's success stories is sweeper Katie Douglas. Bagrosky said the Wilde Lake student was a very marginal player who struggled for more than three years before developing into one of the team's top defenders.

"She just kept working and working to get better," said Bagrosky. "Now, she's just blossomed into an absolute linchpin out there."

It's that kind of progress that has led many of the area's top players to fight for spots on the roster at open tryouts.

Other team members include striker Abby Bausman and halfbacks Ali Schuch and Heather Truxel from Class 3A-4A state champion Dulaney, halfback Lindsey Poland from 3A-4A runner-up Severna Park, and strikers Michelle Clare and Lauren Molinaro, goalie Rima Sidhu and marking back Tania Riismandel of perennial contender Centennial.

Now, the Spirit is teeming with so many quality players college coaches can't help but notice.

Assistant coach Roy Andersch -- the former head coach of the eight-time state champion Columbia Crusaders -- is at the forefront of the team's effort to sell colleges on their players.

He makes up player-profile booklets for every team member -- which include information about their academic and athletic history, statistics and other vital information -- and passes them out to interested college coaches. Andersch also asks the girls to list their top three college choices, then writes the schools and the coaches to help give his players an inside track to a scholarship.

At the recent Orange Bowl tournament, eight to 12 Division I coaches attended every Spirit game.

"When people are interested in that commodity, it makes my job easy," said Andersch, who was instrumental in setting up a one-day round-robin tournament this March that will match the Spirit against American University, UMBC and Navy.

Win or lose, the players will be the better for participating. The coaches wouldn't have it any other way.

"When you play against the absolute best competition in the country, there's no doubt it makes you a much better player," said Bagrosky. "Our goal is to go down as the best Maryland team ever."

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