Every season, the No. 1 McDonogh boys soccer team has a senior primed to take command of the middle of the field. He's expected to provide leadership, be the settling influence and also make game-changing plays.
An All-Metro first-team midfielder as a junior, Connor Smith has taken on the lead role with last year's All-Metro Player of the Year George Campbell now at Maryland.
So far, so good.
In Wednesday's showdown at No. 4 St. Paul's — a rematch of last year's Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference title game — Smith's dynamic play was the difference as he scored two goals and added an assist to lead the defending champions to a 3-1 win over the Crusaders.
The Eagles improved to 2-0 and Smith has already contributed four goals and two assists this season.
"He's a special kid. Not only is he a fantastic player and passer of the ball, but he has that knack for making big plays at big moments," McDonogh coach Brandon Quaranta said. "He always does it."
Smith opened the scoring with 6:11 to play in the first half with a left-footed strike that found the upper left corner from 15 yards away. After the Crusaders evened the game on a penalty kick by midfielder Juwan Kearson just before the half, Smith set a fast pace for the second half.
With 24 minutes left, he sent a pass in to fellow senior standout Tunde Akinlosotu, who made a precise turn in front before finding the goal from 12 yards away for a 2-1 advantage.
After the Crusaders pressured for the equalizer, Smith scored the insurance goal after a fine run with the ball and cross from Nicolas Brown with 9:39 to play.
"St. Paul's is one of the best teams in the league and they played so well. They got the [penalty kick] to tie it up right before halftime — we weren't playing really well and we had to get back into it," Smith said. "At the end of the game, we got the two late goals and it worked out for us.
"Coming out in the preseason, we knew it was going to be a very hard challenge defending our championship, and we knew teams like Loyola [Blakefield] and St. Paul's, they're going to be very good and we're just working very hard."
In last year's regular season meeting between the teams at St. Paul's, the Crusaders came back to earn a 3-3 draw in late October to spoil the Eagles' plans for a perfect season. McDonogh then needed a last-minute goal in the championship game to claim a 1-0 win and finish 21-0-1.
In the teams' first meeting of the 2014 season, the Eagles' persistent attack was too much for the Crusaders. St. Paul's coach Majid Mirza said the early-season test would provide a gauge for what his team needed to improve on in.
Mirza credited Goalie Conor Brown (six saves), midfielders Kearson and Morgan Lussi, and All-Metro forward Nate Hall with fine performances.
"[McDonogh] is a well-coached team and they came at us hard and we just didn't have the rhythm today," Mirza said.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article mispelled Nicolas Brown's name.
No. 1 McDonogh 3, No. 4 St. Paul's 1
Goals: M – Smith 2, Akinlosotu; SP -- Kearson
Assists: M – Smith, Brown
Saves: M – Black 2; SP – Brown 6