Taking road less traveled

Hammond took an unconventional path to its first state final appearance.


One by one, the parts of the portable goals were loaded up in the bed of a truck last week after school, followed by a bunch of soccer balls, some corner flags and anything else needed.

After everything was unloaded and set up, it looked like practice as usual for the Hammond boys soccer team, but last week was special.

Sure, there was much the same fun banter that has been around since the first day of practice in August, and second-year coach Rick Bantz - affectionately and simply called "Bantz" by his players - was leading the chorus of jokes while directing the drills.

But a goal was reached and new heights were achieved with every shot taken, each of the laps run and every laugh that followed a wisecrack.

"The first thing I started off with in August was asking them what they wanted to do this year," Bantz said. "They said, `Well, Bantz, we want to be the last fall team out here [practicing].' "

The 2005 Golden Bears did something that no other boys soccer team had ever done at Hammond - reach the state finals. Although the Golden Bears dropped a 1-0 decision to Liberty in Saturday's Class 2A state championship game, the Hammond players said the path taken was both enjoyable and unconventional.

"I'm going to remember everything about this season," junior midfielder Mostafa Ebrahimnejad said. `This team - I love all of them - they're good guys. We've had fun and also been serious when we needed to. I think that's a big part of it."

A welcome addition to the Hammond boys soccer family was junior midfielder James Headley, who had to leave his home and family in Bay St. Louis, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina. Headley, who has three playoff goals, including two game-winners, moved in with his aunt and uncle here and found immediate comfort on the Hammond soccer field.

"It felt really nice being out on the field because it took everything else away," he said. "Everyone is so close - we're all a bunch of goofballs and they just absorbed me in as soon as I got here. It's helped out a lot."

Last season, the Golden Bears were a goal away from reaching the state semifinals, something the program accomplished in 2001 and 2002. Hammond was eliminated by eventual state champ and county rival Atholton in a regional final loss in double overtime.

The much-anticipated rematch during the regular season brought more disappointment to the Bears, a 2-0 loss on Oct. 19, but it served as the season's turning point.

"They just came out and pretty much embarrassed us," senior defender and team captain Patrick Preziotti said. "But after that, we realized we really had to step it up and work that much harder."

The Golden Bears (11-3-5) closed out the regular season with shutout wins over Oakland Mills and Reservoir, blanked Calvert and Glenelg to reach the regional final, and this time, was on the better end against Atholton with a 2-1 win.

Hammond's 2-0 win over Hereford in the state semifinals made school history and sent the Bears to Saturday's title game.

Team captain Jose Maldonado said there were plenty of things that separated this year's team from the three others he's played on at Hammond, but foremost is how close the team grew together.

"Not only on the soccer field, but in school we're hanging out and after school, too," he said. "We're more than just teammates - we know each other better - and that helps when we're on the field."

Bantz, who spent 18 years assisting Don Shea at Oakland Mills, brought a unique method of coaching that the players needed time to buy into. Bantz has his own soccer terminology, with a number of different sayings ("Hunt the nugget" is a favorite, which translates to "pressure the ball"); some set plays that are out of the norm, but effective; and also a ton of championship experiences to share, with Oakland Mills having captured 12 state titles with his help.

Bantz said the first challenge was to turn a negative environment into a positive one with high expectations. The common early call was, "We can do it," he said.

Ebrahimnejad, the offensive catalyst with 12 goals and six assists, said: "Pre-Bantz, we weren't a strong program and everybody wanted to do their own thing. He's whipped us into shape. Bantz has brought us together."

The team's success also has brought everybody closer.

"I think it's really helped connect everybody at our school," said junior goalie David Griffith, who had 11 shutouts going into the state final game. "We really haven't had that many fans before, but everybody is coming out to see us play and enjoying it. To see our team do so well, it's been amazing to see how everyone's attitudes have changed and how much fun everyone is having."


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