For Kenwood boys, it's about confidence

After coach's challenge, Bluebirds roll to 4A final

High Schools

November 11, 2003|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Kenwood soccer team wasn't exactly on a roll when the regular season ended a few weeks ago.

A seven-game winless streak had sent the Bluebirds to a 6-6-2 record.

The offense hadn't been heard from for a while, causing the team to lose confidence with the playoffs coming up. And postseason play hadn't exactly been Kenwood's strength: The school hadn't won a playoff game in at least 30 years.

But everything changed quickly. Sparked by a strong performance in a season-ending loss to No. 2 Archbishop Curley, Kenwood seemed to awaken as the playoffs began. The Bluebirds routed Patterson, surprised Dulaney and stunned Thomas Johnson before earning a trip to Thursday's Class 4A state finals at UMBC - vs. No. 8 Old Mill - with an impressive 3-0 shutout of Walter Johnson on Friday.

Second-year Kenwood coach Gary Schneehagen tried something different with his team in the final days of the regular season. He banged home the concept that they weren't getting the respect they deserve - and the players bought into it.

"They weren't getting respect before, but now they're demanding it," Schneehagen said. "They've earned it. Now they believe they can win, and that's half the battle."

Believing in themselves proved to be a large problem during the season's final days. Kenwood's defense had been strong from the start, but the Bluebirds went 0-5-2 in the final seven games of the regular season, scoring just three goals while getting shut out five times.

But then came two turning points. Kenwood played very well in the regular-season finale, a 2-0 loss to Curley in which the Bluebirds kept the Friars scoreless for the first 72 minutes. Kenwood followed that with a 7-2 rout of Patterson in the first playoff game - after scoring only eight goals in its previous nine games combined.

"Our offense was especially down, but having that pretty easy game against Patterson helped us out a lot," said senior midfielder Andy Gallagher, the team's leading scorer with eight goals and 10 assists. "We [knew] we could score again."

Neil Phillips led the way with five goals in that game, including a spectacular bicycle kick that Schneehagen said was one of the best goals he's seen in more than 30 years of watching soccer. The region semifinal with Dulaney brought more of the same as the Bluebirds shocked the Lions with a three-goal first half en route to a 4-1 victory.

The region final was more the defensive game the Bluebirds love, but Dominic Pagulario completed the wild three-game run with an overtime goal for a 1-0 victory over Thomas Johnson. The Frederick County school put relentless pressure on Kenwood and held a 17-5 edge in shots on goal, but goalie Alex Hancock and the defense stood firm.

Hancock, a senior, may have had his best game in Friday's shutout of Walter Johnson at Thomas Johnson. He made 11 saves, several on one-on-one chances that clearly frustrated the Montgomery County team. Hancock allowed three goals in the four playoff games and was picked as the team's Most Valuable Player this year.

"With each big save, the confidence level increases, and I'm able to make more," Hancock said. "That's the way soccer is as it's all about momentum."

And the school has picked up on the momentum. Kenwood students and coaches suddenly became soccer fans in recent days. One morning last week, girls soccer coach Derek Woodward spoke to the school over the public address system and urged everyone to come to Frederick and support their team.

A bus of Kenwood fans made the approximately 75-minute trip to Thomas Johnson on Friday night. The fans eventually had the enjoyable task of rubbing it in a bit to the Walter Johnson faithful who didn't stop screaming "Walter Johnson" most of the game.

In the final minutes, the Kenwood fans alternated gleefully chanting "it's all over" and "over-rated." The Bluebirds already are expecting a similar group of fans to show up at Thursday's title game at UMBC, which is a much shorter trip.

"This just has mushroomed and caused a lot of excitement throughout the school," said Ron Belinko, coordinator of athletics for Baltimore County.

"They're really pushing. It also reinforces an open tournament concept. Every school has a chance."

Kenwood is hoping for more than just a chance against an Old Mill team that's also making its first state championship game appearance, but the Bluebirds will certainly never forget these last two weeks.

"It's just been a great run," Schneehagen said. "I can handle it if we lose, but I want to win so badly that I can taste it."

Turnaround

Kenwood ended the season with a seven-game winless streak, but is 4-0 in the playoffs.

Last seven regular-season games

Parkville 0, Kenwood 0 Perry Hall 1, Kenwood 0 Towson 3, Kenwood 0 Dulaney 1, Kenwood 0 Franklin 2, Kenwood 2 Patapsco 5, Kenwood 1 Curley 2, Kenwood 0

Region tournament

Kenwood 7, Patterson 2 Kenwood 4, Dulaney 1 Kenwood 1, T. Johnson 0, OT

Class 4A state semifinal

Kenwood 3, Walter Johnson 0

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