Atholton Boys' Soccer Team Seeks Redemption in the Playoffs
The Atholton Raiders finished the season with a 5-5-1 record in county play, losing three of those games by one goal. The team will get a fresh start this Tuesday against Stephen Decatur in the playoffs.
Atholton High School may just be the sleeper team in the 3A boys' soccer state championship tournament.
The Raiders' record in county play (5-5-1) does not accurately reflect what they might be capable of accomplishing in the playoffs. After all, this is a team that lost 1-0 in highly competitive games against Wilde Lake, River Hill and Reservoir high schools.
It was only in the last week of the regular season that Atholton struggled. Hampered by injuries to several starters, they lost 3-0 to Marriotts Ridge and 4-0 to Hammond.
Prior to those final two games, Atholton had been scored on just three times in county play. They could easily have been a contender for the county title before those last two games – had just a few plays gone differently in their initial three county losses.
That's something which Coach Roch DeFrances emphasizes to his players.
"We lost some really close games to some really good teams," DeFrances said.
With DeFrances' encouragement, the team has come to see those tough losses as confidence boosters going into the playoffs.
The team had a bye in the first round and plays Stephen Decatur this Tuesday in a 3A East regional quarterfinal game.
"If we beat Stephen Decatur, then we will probably face River Hill again. If we beat River Hill, then we will probably face Wilde Lake in the regional finals. I know we are just as good as both River Hill and Wilde Lake," DeFrances said.
"In the regular season we just made fundamental mistakes that cost us a goal in both games. We could have, and should have, won against both teams," he said.
The River Hill game was lost on a defensive mistake, DeFrances said.
"One of my senior defenders said to push forward, and River Hill just put the ball over their heads. They thought the referee would call offsides, but he didn't, and River Hill scored and held on the rest of the game."
In the Wilde Lake game, the team was scored against on a set-ball situation.
"The shot hit my goalkeeper's outstretched hands and, almost on a fluke, went in," said DeFrances.
The playoffs are a fresh start for the team, as they were last season when they finished 6-5 in county play. The Raiders played strong in those playoffs, reaching the state semifinal game before being defeated.
"We have that same opportunity this year," said senior defender Andrew Martin.
Martin points to Atholton's regular season 1-0 win against Oakland Mills as an example of how the team needs to perform in the playoffs.
"The entire team went 100 percent in that game the entire time," Martin said. "We put one away and then our defense shut them down. We were right there on their forwards every time they got the ball, and we pressed back hard when we had the ball. If we can play like that in the playoffs, I wouldn't be surprised if we went all the way."
DeFrances agrees that the win against Oakland Mills was a good showcase of what his team is potentially capable of doing in the playoffs.
"Oakland Mills is a good, physical team," DeFrances said. "They force a lot of really long throw-ins and put a lot of pressure on the defense and goalkeeper, but we held them down."
DeFrances believes a key to success for the team in the playoffs will be attacking more on offense.
"We need to move the ball up the field as fast as possible," he said. "In our scrimmages at practice, I push the idea to attack quickly and more often."
Senior center-midfielder Tyler Parker, a four-year varsity starter and one of the captains, said the team is entering the playoffs with a renewed focus.
"We realize that if we lose one game, then the season is over," Parker said. "We will be a lot more focused and more intense on the field. Everything will be stepped up substantially."
Parker adds that the team's one-goal losses during the regular season resulted from a "focus let-down."
"If we focused more, we could have easily won those close games," he said.
Martin believes the key to success in the playoffs will be a more aggressive offensive attack than what the team displayed during the regular season.
"Every shooting opportunity that we have, we need to take it," Martin said. "Shooting has been a big problem with us. We didn't take enough shots on goal. We passed the ball around and waited for the perfect opportunity instead of just taking every shot."
The team will also look to capitalize on its ball-control ability.
"We are not a kick and run type of team," Parker said. "We really settle the ball down and try to play good, smart soccer. If we able to do that and have an aggressive mentality, then we will really put teams away."
At a recent practice preparing for the upcoming game against Stephen Decatur, DeFrances talked to his team about the importance of recognizing the opportunity that the playoffs present to show just how good the team can be.
"In life, all you can ask for is a chance. There are no guarantees of anything," DeFrances said. "We have a chance to go to Stephen Decatur and progress on; you have to make the most of your chances. That is what we did last season."