Reaching last year's state final boosted Perry Hall girls soccer nTC into unfamiliar territory this fall.
Nearly every starter returns, so little has changed about the Gators' physical game. But it's a whole different ballgame when it comes to the mental aspect -- how the No. 3 Gators handle their newfound status as a marked team.
"People are really looking to beat us," said All-Metro center halfback Jessa Phoebus. "We've never been in that situation before. You can definitely tell there's going to be more pressure. We don't really feel it yet, but once we get more into the season, I think we will."
The Gators always have been one of Baltimore County's top teams, but until last year, they were overshadowed by Dulaney and Loch Raven, which won state titles in 1993.
Beating Dulaney in last year's regional opener proved a good start toward boosting their stock, but even then, the Gators say, few outside the team believed. The Gators didn't convert everyone until they pushed No. 3 Centennial to the wire before falling, 2-1, in the Class 3A-4A title game.
"A lot of people thought when we beat Dulaney -- oh, it was afluke," said stopper Susan Fortkiewicz. "Then we beat C. Milton Wright. Even though it was a shootout, it was a fluke -- and even when beat Severna Park. When we went to the state finals, everybody started paying attention. Now, we have a reputation to uphold and everybody has high expectations."
Opening the season 4-0, the Gators have lived up to those expectations in beating No. 14 Hereford, 1-0, Friday night.
The Gators have worked hard to eliminate some early-season defensive breakdowns, but a string of injuries has made that a challenge. Not only is Phoebus sidelined for at least another week with a pulled quadriceps muscle, but sweeper Lisa Goddard sprained an ankle in the first half at Hereford. Fortkiewicz and halfback Keri Scrivani just returned from minor injuries.
Still, with Phoebus, Fortkiewicz, Goddard, keeper Stephanie Koman, and rotating backs Jen McCarty, Elsa Ermer, Lauren Tanner and Maya Hussing all back from last year, coach Pat Sokoloski has plenty of experience to go around.
"What they're working on is getting back and being aware of what's going on around them," said Sokoloski, who retired last year after 12 seasons only to return when back surgery sidelined new coach Frank Insinga. "They're all good, skilled ball players, but they're getting more into the mental aspects of it now."
At midfield, the Gators have remained solid with Fortkiewicz often filling Phoebus' spot at center back. When she's at stopper, Scrivani, Nicole Foos and Amanda Capone run the midfield. On the line, the Gators return Bev Campbell and Kerri Siess, who combined for 26 goals and 16 assists last year, and Aubrey Schaeffer, a transfer from Mercy, fills the only vacancy created by graduation.
With that kind of returning power and the added experience of reaching the state finals, the Gators have only one goal for this season -- to win the state title.
Sokoloski, however, would like the Gators to focus a little closer to home, at least for a while.
"In 14 years, we've never won a county title. We've never won a division title. That sort of irks me," said Sokoloski. "This year with a tough division it means more. To me, it would mean an awful lot to say you won the tough division because everybody's here -- Loch Raven, Dulaney, Towson, Hereford, Franklin. In the regionals, you lose one game and you're out. The county title is something you work for all season."