`Gold mine for soccer' paying big dividends

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

November 09, 2003|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

MAYBE YOU noticed the same college occupying the top spot in national rankings in men's and women's soccer this fall. No, not North Carolina. We're talking about Howard Community College, just a few days ago, in fact, and behind that kind of rare recognition lies an untold tale -- or two, or three.

The Lady Dragons, as our Sports section reported Friday, are in Batavia, N.Y., this weekend competing in the final four in the National Junior College Athletic Association's Division III (nonscholarship) championships, the title being decided today. More on them shortly.

First, though, we cannot ignore the Dragons, whom many in JuCo soccer thought would be in the men's final four, too.

They were cruising along in a dream season at any level of play, straight into the district title game this month, when the bubble popped in a 1-0 loss to Union County (N.J.) Community College. It was a bitter end to what otherwise was a mighty memorable season.

Memorable, as in a 19-1-0 record, best in school history; 117 goals scored, 17 allowed; a roster with the nation's No. 1, 2, 4 and 5 scorers in Division III -- and the No. 4 goalkeeper.

Aw, yeah, some of you might be saying, but it's only junior-college ball.

Dragons coach Jim Bell knows the sentiment well; he is a former JuCo goalkeeper, himself -- national champ at Prince George's Community College 20 years ago. But, indeed, times have changed.

"We've had coaches from 10 different four-year colleges call in just the last 14 days, asking about our players," Bell said, "including four or five from Division I and that many more from Division II schools. One of them, from New Mexico, was talking about making a scholarship offer to a player he'd never seen play. That's the reputation we're building here."

Last season, Bell said, four of his six sophomores got at least partial scholarship offers.

In his third season as HCC's men's coach, Bell has built offensively minded teams largely with Howard County talent. They have posted a 44-6-2 record and improved competitively each season. Last fall, they went out in the region final, also by 1-0; this year, it was the district final -- in effect, the elite eight.

Bell's team had so many offensive weapons this fall that all but two of its 117 goals came from the run of play, which at times was outrageous -- an 11-0 win over Frederick, 12-1 over Allegany, 16-0 over Chesapeake, and, believe it or not, 19-0 over the Community College of Baltimore County-Dundalk.

"I don't remember ever seeing a team like this one," said Bell, who was an assistant coach at Prince George's for seven years after playing there. His roster this fall included 11 players from Columbia and seven with pedigrees that made them high school All-County or All-Metro players in The Sun or The Washington Post.

Brandon Hawkes, a defender at Oakland Mills High, was Division III's top scorer with 19 goals and 21 assists in 20 games. Kwaku Boateng, a former Hammond standout, was second with 22 goals and eight assists. Gordon Murray, also from Hammond, was fourth, Randy Collins, from Centennial, was fifth, and Josh Burford, from Glenelg, was eighth.

As for coach Kate Seagroves' 14-2-0 Lady Dragons, maybe their story is more remarkable, regardless of this weekend's outcome. Final four has a nice ring to it, even as the NJCAA tries to upgrade its lagging women's athletics programs.

You see, five years ago, HCC scarcely had a women's soccer team. HCC Athletic Director Diane Schumacher recalled that Seagroves, in her first season coaching, prowled the school's halls, asking just about any female student in athletic garb if she would try soccer.

Seagroves then joined the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County as a club coach, made new contacts, and got a better feel for the potential talent she could recruit. This fall, her roster includes players from Long Reach, Atholton, River Hill, Glenelg, Laurel, Pallotti, North Carroll and Westminster high schools.

If you watch Bell, Seagroves and Schumacher, expect to see more of this kind of HCC soccer as the school's teams move next fall into a new complex co-developed by SAC/HC, which also will use the three new fields.

As Schumacher, who has coached women's sports at Princeton, is in four softball halls of fame and has a mission to upgrade HCC sports, puts it: "This county is a gold mine for soccer."

Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or send e-mail to lowell.sunderland@baltsun.com.

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