Anyone associated with the Perry Hall's boys' soccer team will quickly tell you about the group's family atmosphere.
The Gators have been a close-knit group for years, which is something head coach Pete Eibner has done by design since taking over the program in 2011. In Eibner's opinion, if the team is tight-knit away from the field, it's more likely to perform well on it. Whether it's through organized dinners with the entire team or just a couple of players spending their free time together, Eibner wants his players to be forming bonds.
"There's a culture of togetherness within our organization," Eibner said. "It's a rite of passage that's been passed down. For the five years I've been here, it's always been that way. Our seniors have always handed it off, and the juniors take the reins."
Something else that's been passed on from year to year within the program is winning.
For years, Perry Hall has been a Baltimore County powerhouse in boys' soccer, which has continued during Eibner's tenure. Since joining the program, Eibner has guided the Gators to three regional championships and two county titles.
The program has been a consistent winner before Eibner's time, but there was one glaring omission on Perry Hall's resume -- a Maryland Public Secondary School Athletics Association state title. That changed in 2015, though, when Perry Hall topped Meade, 1-0, to claim the Class 4A state crown.
"We've been very blessed in that we've always been in the mix, been right there, obtained a successful record and gotten far in the postseason," Eibner said. "Winning it was euphoric because it was the culmination of a lot of hard work, as well as heartbreak. We've had teams before last year's that could've done it."
Months after winning the championship, though, Eibner admits there was a time when he was concerned the 2015 team could join the litany of Perry Hall teams capable of winning a state title but didn't.
After opening with tough losses to Maryland Interscholastic Athletics Association teams McDonough and Archbishop Curley, the Gators struggled to stay healthy as Baltimore County play commenced. As the injuries added up, Eibner began to wonder if this group's potential was going to be derailed by its inability to stay on the field.
That changed Oct. 8 when Perry Hall played Franklin. The squad was finally at full strength when senior forward Connor Gwin and senior defender Evan Eibner, Pete Eibner's son, returned. The Gators won that game, 6-0, and then two more by the same score against Hereford and Pikesville. A 4-1 win against Harford County's C. Milton Wright followed, which cemented in the players' minds they were going to be a tough team to beat.
"That run was a big morale booster," rising senior midfielder and defender Jake Dawson said. "It brought us together and showed us that if we put our all into it, we could succeed."
The Gators were still tested on their way to the state final, needing overtime to beat Catonsville and Howard in regional play. After besting Eleanor Roosevelt, 1-0, in the semifinal round, the team was set to face Meade for the state championship.
The game was played under the lights at Loyola University's Ridley Athletic Complex, with Dawson saying it was easily the largest crowd he's ever played soccer in front of. Many Perry Hall soccer alumni came out to watch the game, even though plenty didn't know any current players. The contingent wasn't just made of former players from Baltimore -- some came back to the area from as far away as New Mexico and Massachusetts just to watch the Gators play.
In a truly epic game that saw the Gators play the final 24 minutes down a man after one of their players accrued two yellow cards, Perry Hall took the lead a few minutes before halftime when Evan Eibner crossed the ball into the box from the right flank. Rising senior forward Jack Muller chested the ball to Gwin, who was able to fire Perry Hall into the lead.
"I knew, from my angle, there was no way to bring it down and shoot," Muller said. "I saw Connor making a great run, laid it off and got out of the way."
After scoring, Gwin and his teammates ran over to celebrate in front of a section of the crowd where a lot of Perry Hall alums were sitting, something Pete Eibner said is one of his favorite details of the state championship.
"I thought it was poignant. It was to say, 'You're with us; this is for you, and we know you should have been there too,'" Eibner said. "Those guys in the stands were appreciative. At the various celebrations afterwards, I had so many former players come up and tell me just how much it meant to them."
While there have been a lot of celebrations for the Gators after their 17-3 finish last year, including an exciting opportunity to be honored during a Baltimore Blast game, the team is now focused on the 2016 season.
The Gators are expected to remain one of Baltimore's best teams, though there's some uncertainty surrounding the group. The team graduated 13 seniors, including the starting defensive line, which conceded one goal throughout the postseason, so new players are going to need to make an impact.
One key returner will be Muller. A starter since he was a freshman, Muller has established himself as one of the best goal scorers in Perry Hall's history. An aggressive player with excellent instincts, Muller is expected to be the player Perry Hall looks to when they need a goal.
"We have less experience, so confidence will be key for us," he said. "I hope to build players up that may have not played at the varsity level yet. Our first couple games there could be some rough patches, so it'll be important to let the new players know that everything will sort itself out."
Muller isn't the only important returnee either.
Rising senior goalkeeper Ayden Crew is a strong stopper and recorded 10 shutouts last season. Derek Staines is another rising senior who Eibner expects will have a big year. The central defensive midfielder is athletic and should do a solid job disrupting opponents' play. Dawson's versatility and reliability should allow Eibner to have flexibility with lineup choices.
Although there's plenty of work to do, Eibner is confident his bunch will be a tough team for opponents to deal with once the regular season begins. For the returning players, they're excited to defend their state title and show a new batch of Gators what it means to play soccer for Perry Hall.
"We'll definitely keep it going," Staines said. "One of our goals for this year is to go forward to try to win another state championship. We want to improve our skills on the field, increase our soccer knowledge and bring our brotherhood closer than we already are."
Issue 224: August 2016