The McDonogh boys soccer team finds itself in a familiar spot, ranked No. 1 in The Baltimore Sun's Top 15 preseason poll.
This season, the defending Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference champions have another talented team, led by All-Metro senior midfielder Connor Smith.
But there's one big difference: Longtime head coach Steve Nichols moved on to coach his alma mater, Loyola Maryland, leaving assistant Brandon Quaranta in charge of one of the country's most prominent programs.
Having spent the past eight years under Nichols and also having extensively worked with most players at the club level, Quaranta is banking on a smooth transition.
"The biggest thing that changes when you're the head coach is a little bit of extra pressure," Quaranta said. "[As an] assistant, you're making sure the guys are improving and playing their best soccer at the end of the year. When you're the head coach, there's the added pressure with making final decisions from a personnel standpoint, playing time and what you have to do from an administrative standpoint."
Having nine starters back from last year's 19-0-1 team – which No. 1 in the country, according to the Students Sports Fab 50 poll – will help in the transition.
"I don't think it's going to be a whole lot different, only because all of us played on the same club and grew up playing with Steve and coach Brandon," said Smith, who earned All-Metro first-team honors last season. "I think their coaching styles are a little different, so it may be more of a difference the way practices are run. Coach Brandon is into doing different drills and trying some new things. With Steve, we would usually do the same things over and over and obviously that worked."
Nichols' departure has changed the landscape of the MIAA Conference. The coach won 290 games and seven league championships in 17 years.
"There's obviously going to be a void," Gilman coach Jon Seal said. "I was coaching for a little bit just as [former legendary Calvert Hall coach] Bill Karpovich stepped down and I think it's comparable. [In Nichols], you're talking about someone who has been part of the MIAA for 17 years, someone who has achieved that much success – the conference will miss Steve and everything he brought. But with that being said, he left the program in capable hands in Brandon and I know he'll do a fantastic job."