A couple of the more popular blogs through the years have been Q&A sit-downs with our coaches. That noted, this week’s The Week That Was is a Q&A session with Varsity Boys Soccer Coach Chris Jennings following another highly-successful fall campaign.
Question: Talk to me about your season – your thoughts on the just completed season? In particular, the run to the State Championship final. Our inability to score surfaced once again in the Championship game. Despite the loss in PKs, you have to be pleased overall.
Coach Jennings: The players and coaches gathered quietly amidst the chilling wind and dark shadows on the pitch at the Soccerplex last November. Seven more scoreless minutes and the Knights would have delivered a WCAC championship to Bishop O’Connell for the first time in 16 years. So close to victory, but the pain of defeat pierced through their hearts. “Soak this in and remember what this feels like…how close we were. Feel it in the gym, when you’re out for a run, practicing on your own on the training ground, and see yourself raising that trophy next time…and when it happens, it will feel that much better,” I remember telling them afterwards.
Fast-forward to the end of summer 2015, as the players were gathering for preseason. With wounds healed and expectations high, they were buzzing around McMurtrie Field in anticipation for the upcoming campaign. With one of the most difficult schedules in the DMV and a talented returning group, the Knights could not wait to begin their pursuit of a title.
The highly-anticipated start to a successful season proved to be just that, with an early season 3-1 victory over St. Christopher’s - the 2014 Virginia state champion. Along with the early victories came some unprecedented injuries to key players for the Knights. Senior captain and pre-season All-American Dave Salas would be injured for the majority of the campaign after the St. Christopher’s victory. Towering centerback Nick Barahona (pictured left) would also join him on the sideline, as he underwent knee surgery. Another senior captain, Daniel Catalfamo, would battle recurring shin and calf injuries, which prevented him from participating in some games and even practicing at all. The depth of the Knights squad was instantly challenged.
In light of these injury struggles, we pushed on and continued to dominate games in the run of play. It became routine for opposing teams to park a bus and sit nine, ten players behind the ball in their own half. Junior midfielder Andres Garcia (pictured right), a newcomer to the program, led the balanced Knights’ attack in goals with eight while earning 1st Team All-WCAC honors. Junior forward Juan Benavides (pictured below) followed up on his breakout sophomore campaign with another seven goals and also earned 1st Team All-WCAC honors. Senior captain and midfielder Andre Toledo earned 2nd Team All-WCAC honors while playing the deepest midfield role. His tenacious energy and ability to break up the opponent’s counter-attack was key. Senior defender Jared Saunders stepped up in a big way, filling in at centerback and becoming the leader of the defense. Seniors Albert Ujevic and Daniel Catalfamo performed admirably in the midfield and defense respectively. Saunders, Ujevic and Catalfamo were all recognized with All-WCAC Honorable Mention recogniton.
Salas and Barahona returned bravely for the state tournament run. Although they were both not 100 percent, they wanted to give all they could to contribute to the team. Despite dominating the championship game with two chances off the crossbar and a Barahona goal called back for an offside call, the Knights (9-5-5) came up on the losing end in a penalty shootout. On any other night, O’Connell wins the game and their first VISAA championship, but the bounces would just not go the way of the White and Blue.
Yes, it’s frustrating when you dominate games to not convert all the chances that are created, but that’s how this crazy game works. I’m really pleased with the boys in general, how they have come together as a family, how they play an attractive style that allows them to be creative and make their own decisions – just a really good group of young men to be around.
Question: The program enjoyed a lot of firsts, including appearances in both the national rankings and The Washington Post Top 10 coaches’ poll, not to mention advancing to the VISAA State Tournament Championship Game – a first for our school in boys’ soccer. In many ways, a truly outstanding campaign. Again, your thoughts?
Coach Jennings: This group deserved every bit of recognition they received…from the national rankings, the Washington Post poll and the #1 ranking they held in the state all year long. The attractive, attacking brand of soccer is who we are as a program, and these players played some of the best soccer I’ve seen – definitely at the high school level. We had college coaches attend some of our games and then send me lists of players they were interested in. The way we do things and our training methods are quite different from everyone else. The players are taught HOW to think, rather than WHAT to think, and they’re given the creative freedom to make their own decisions. We are not rigid in our approach or playing style and require constant decision-making from the players. The free-flowing player movement, attacking flair and precise ball movement is all a byproduct of the players being able to think quickly and create for themselves. Our playing style is in stark contrast to what you normally see, which is kick and run or playing long balls hoping that a mistake will lead to an opportunity. We take ownership of the game in our possession and artistic approach.
To see our players go about things in the more difficult, but more rewarding way, has been very satisfying. They are better players for it and have been recognized in ways that no other O’Connell team in history has. For that, I’m pleased and proud of them.
Question: It is Year Four in the Chris Jennings’ era. And, without question, we are coming off our best season in recent memory on the soccer pitch. Talk to me about the O’Connell boys’ soccer program and your vision for the future. We lose a talented class this year, with 12 seniors graduating. Have we reached a point where when the subject is the boys’ soccer elite in the DMV that O’Connell’s name promises to be in the discussion? Curious, your thoughts on the program.
Coach Jennings: The program has definitely proven itself to be one of the strongest programs in the area and the premier player development program in Virginia. We have enjoyed many firsts over the course of the last few seasons. There is a buzz about O’Connell soccer amongst players and those who want to develop to a very high level will continue to come into the program. We have a talented group of players returning next season as well. Juniors Benavides and Garcia will return as 1st Team All-WCAC award winners and the leading scorers from this season. Also returning from the junior class are attacker Bryan Vega and midfielder Luis Ochoa. Our sophomore class brings back some very talented players and massive contributors this past season – Diego Solano, Alex Abril, Nick Barahona and Aidan O’Connell, who all spent time in the Starting XI while Jason Nunez missed most of the year with injury. This group will come back as seasoned varsity members as juniors next season. Returning will also be starting goalkeeper Marcelo Flores, who is only a freshman. Forward/midfielder Victor Montero returns from the freshman class as well. With the quality of these players coming back and the addition of more talent coming, the future remains bright for the Knights!
This group of seniors will be the first graduating class since I arrived at O’Connell. They hold a special place in my heart, as I have coached some of these players since they were nine or ten years old. These boys helped usher in a new era in O’Connell Soccer and leave as the standard everyone will be held to moving forward. There are some incredibly talented individuals in this group, both on and off the field. From National Honors Society to All-Region and All-American, they are a highly-decorated group. Perhaps most rewarding and gratifying is to see how close this group is on and off the field. They have come to O’Connell from all different areas and backgrounds, but have formed a brotherhood as Knights.
Graduating seniors within that brotherhood include: #2 Daniel Catalfamo (captain), #8 Dave Salas (captain), #6 Andre Toledo (captain, pictured left), #3 Nico Torres, #4 Christian Liljenquist, #5 Andy Janis, #9 Will Partridge, #12 Will Keyes, #15 Jack Grasmeder, #16 Albert Ujevic, #20 Jared Saunders and Team Manager Brandon Cortez.
I believe we are among the elite programs in the DMV. The playing style and individual player development that is taking place on our training ground on a daily basis is second to none. We compete against the best in the area and have begun to gain national recognition. I think the proof lies in how our opponents set up against us week in and week out. Outside of a couple games, we went into every match having to break down an entire team sitting behind the ball looking to defend. This proved to be a difficult task, but our players were up for the challenge and have made it to a WCAC Final and State Final in consecutive years. The standard of excellence has been set, and they know what it feels like now – to compete annually for championships and be amongst the elite. And we plan on that continuing.
This is Tommy Orndorff, and that was The Week That Was.
Gone were several key players from a year ago, lost to graduation. Another, the returning starting goalkeeper, was lost for the season because of a broken jaw. Concussions sidelined yet another; unfortunately, also a goalie. Suddenly, a strength became a concern. Coach Alberto Starace was beside himself – and it was only July.
What did August, September, October and November behold? To be sure, this was a rebuilding year for the Knights. Would the Knights even be playing meaningful games in October and November? That had to be in the back of his mind.
Coach Starace was at a loss. In 31 years at the helm, he had never experienced anything quite like this. A perennial power in the DMV since his arrival in 1985, the veteran mentor was threading on new turf this fall. The challenges that lie ahead had to seem insurmountable at that time. Yes, insurmountable.
Yet, somehow, someway, his DJO girls were resilient and, in the end, persevered – advancing to the WCAC Championship Tournament semi-finals before bowing to eventual champion Good Counsel, 1-0. The Knights were at their best, bunkering down on defense and stymieing the defending champions until a late goal provided the final margin of victory for the long-time nemesis of the O’Connell girls. The same Good Counsel contingent that routed DJO earlier in the season, 6-0. This was probably the Knights’ best showing of the fall campaign. Kudos Giblets!
But hold on...I'm getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning or thereabouts.
It was a struggle early on as Coach Starace experimented with a number of players seeking an answer in goal. Lizzie Roberts was recruited out of the hallways at school, and Elysse Anderson was converted from defender to a goalie. That duo stepped in and performed admirably in the early going.
Considering his team’s youth and inexperience, the DJO coach realized that his girls were going to go through some growing pains over the course of the campaign – especially once WCAC play commenced because Good Counsel, Bishop Ireton and Elizabeth Seton each had veteran and formidable lineups returning. It was going to be a challenge. But through hard work and learning to play with each other, the sum became greater than the individual parts. Time and time again, the DJO girls displayed their resilience.
According to Coach Starace, the turning point for the season came when they beat a good Notre Dame Prep team, 2-0. Suddenly, the Knights believed in themselves and, at the same time, each other – realizing that they could play with anyone in the league. They believed! It was a different team that drove away from the field that day than the one that had arrived three hours earlier in the suburbs of Baltimore. The confidence that had been lacking suddenly emerged. They believed!
A four-game winning streak followed, before a 6-0 dismantling at Good Counsel exposed the Knights’ shortcomings – namely the inability to score and the lack of depth. The numbers on the season illustrate as much, with O’Connell barely outscoring the opposition, 24-22. Hardly championship totals. The development of the bench and better depth were curtailed because the Knights were in so many close games – limiting the playing time for his reserves as the coach was forced to stay with his frontline players.
According to Coach Starace, another factor was the Knights’ lack of size. Especially in the WCAC, where the physicality of play wears on smaller players – leading to mismatches on the field not to mention injuries. This was by far the smallest team O’Connell has fielded during the coach’s 31 years at the school. And size matters, which became evident as the intensity of the games increased down the stretch.
Nevertheless, his girls hung tough – earning a fourth-place seed for the tournament and giving Good Counsel all that they could handle in the season finale.
The DJO girls (8-6-2) were led by senior Grace Boras (pictured top), juniors Gigi Foster and Ashley Wilson (pictured left), Lily Harkes, a sophomore, and freshman Maggie McDonough.
Boras was exceptional, bringing speed and determination to the fray. Her tremendous work ethic on a daily basis saw her evolve into the team’s go-to player on the offensive end, as she led the team in scoring with eight goals and one assist.
Foster played the attacking midfield, displaying exceptional skills with the ball and an elusiveness that is rare at the scholastic level. She was awesome with the ball at her feet, enabling her to get out of some tight situations. Gigi scored two goals and led the team in assists with six.
Wilson anchored the O’Connell defense, providing tremendous leadership on a backline that often featured two or three freshmen flanking her. She came up big, time and time again for the DJO girls.
Exhibiting great instincts for the game, sophomore standout Harkes was outstanding in fulfilling the holding midfield role for O’Connell, netting four goals and distributing the ball to her teammates. She’s a good one!
And perhaps the biggest surprise of the fall campaign on the girls’ soccer pitch was freshman McDonough (pictured right). Maggie’s versatility proved invaluable for the team, as she starred at both ends of the field. Her game is awesome, with her hard-working ways and aggressive play certainly one of the positives to take away from the season. Love her game!
Foster (pictured below) and Harkes earned 1st Team All-WCAC, while McDonough was a 2nd Team honoree and Honorable Mention accolades went to Boras and Wilson.
Other contributors to O’Connell’s success this fall included Josie Davis-Allen, Maggie Basse, Julianne Ludwick and Kate Colclough. Josie was solid, possessing good speed and savvy for the game. Ditto for Maggie, whose skills, toughness and instincts along with a strong left foot proved instrumental for the DJO girls. Julianne’s speed and knack for the goal made her special. Colclough provided someone with size and grit, both from the midfield and up top, who also delivered some nice corner kicks over the course of the campaign.
In many ways, the 2015-16 edition is a team which exceeded expectations – and, to its credit, displayed tremendous resiliency and perseverance in doing so.
This is Tommy Orndorff, and that was The Week That Was.
For the DJO field hockey team, it was a frustrating season...particularly the three overtime losses. Losses are tough to begin with. Dropping three in OT is really, really tough. Painful even, especially considering the team played so well for the entire game and into overtime only to ultimately come up on the short end of the score at the final whistle. For whatever reason, it was not meant to be. And so it was for Coach Mary Quinn’s girls as a 0-13 final record overall would suggest.
Nevertheless, Coach Quinn was pleased with a lot that she evidenced over the course of the just-completed fall campaign. Most especially, the way her team came together – both on and off the field of play – and the senior leadership displayed over the past two months. Captains Madeline O’Brien (pictured top), Angela McGlathery and Ellie Matney (pictured right) were exceptional in steering their team through some of the adversity that comes with losing and, to their credit, were always there for their teammates.
Playing a team sport is so much more than just the wins and losses. They become secondary when you consider the life lessons being taught and learned through their experiences in the competition itself and at practice sessions on a daily basis. So, so much more. Character building, self-esteem, responsibility, sportsmanship, time management skills, dealing with adversity, integrity and accountability to mention a few.
Coach Quinn and her staff relied heavily on the defense and midfield this fall. Standouts included O’Brien, Jessica Manning (pictured left), Kirsten Knauf, Cora Wack and Kenley Sweeney.
O’Brien, as center mid, was the glue. She was at her best reading other teams on their offensive corners and, as the flyer, Madeline was able to get out quickly and shut ‘em down before they could get the shot on goal. She worked well with Sweeney, as that duo combined to take the play wide and out of the defensive circle. Sweeney was awesome, with her speed and agility at center mid enabling her to control the tempo of a game.
Knauf and Wack came up big on defense time and time again. They did a nice job of controlling the play on the defensive side with their savvy and quicks. Both were named to the WCAC 2nd Team Defense at this week’s all-league coaches meeting.
Manning’s stick skills really improved over the past season, which gave her much better ability to carry the ball as a midfielder where she excelled.
On the offensive side of the field, Lily Saunders(pictured right) starred – leading the attack with her quick bursts up the sideline and to the goal. Lily’s efforts earned her Honorable Mention All-League recognition, along with teammates Manning and Sweeney.
Coach Quinn feels her program, in its fifth year since being revamped in 2011, is improving but continues to play catch-up to the rest of the WCAC in numerous areas. Field space is a premium during the fall, with four soccer teams and two football teams vying for field space, whether it be the stadium field, baseball field or Tuckahoe Park. Practices can be tough. The veteran coach longs for the day when feeder programs send her field hockey players rather than the program relying upon lacrosse and softball players...and, probably even more importantly, when the program attracts student/athletes who want to make more of a commitment to the sport, attending quality camps and playing in indoor leagues in the offseason.
It has been a trek. But Coach Quinn sees a glimmer in the distant future – and with it, a program to be proud of. Bring on 2016!
This is Tommy Orndorff, and that was The Week That Was.