Archbishop Curley's soccer program has a storied history.
The Friars have won six championships, with the first being the 1968 Maryland Scholastic Association title. Archbishop Curley won two more MSA titles, and then won its first Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association "A" conference championship in 1995.
The program also has 10 alums who have been voted into the Maryland Soccer Hall of Fame, including Barry Stitz, who graduated in 1987 and is in his 18th year as the Friars' head coach.
"When the school opened in the early ‘60s, a lot of the kids who came here were from that Highlandtown or Herring Run Park area, and soccer was big in those areas," Stitz said. "Throughout the years, that's continued. We compete with some schools that are double our size in enrollment, that have more resources when it comes to financial assistance. In terms of staying relevant, it isn't easy, but pretty much every year the team is competing for an ‘A' conference championship or is at least in the top 10 in the area."
Archbishop Curley's strong soccer tradition is on full display at its home games. The contests usually draw lively crowds that include more than players' family members, giving the Friars a home-field advantage few schools in Baltimore can rival.
"Everyone on the team looks forward to having home games with our students, teachers, alumni and families supporting us," senior center back Nick Richardson said. "That's one thing we all love -- there's nothing else like it around, and it always makes us play better."
While the atmosphere surrounding the soccer program remains strong, the team hasn't won a league championship in more than a decade.
Archbishop Curley's last conference title came in 2006, though that doesn't mean the team hasn't come close, especially recently.
The Friars have reached the past two MIAA "A" conference championship games and had the lead in both before coming up short.
"You don't want to linger or think about those losses too much," Ben Stitz, son of Barry Stitz and the Friars' senior forward, said. "That being said, you also want to use it as motivation because you don't want to have to go through it again."
While the overwhelming sentiment reguarding the championship loss in 2015 was disappointment, there was also some excitement. That season, Archbishop Curley had a young team that featured a lot of players Barry Stitz had coached since a young age, including his son, Richardson and current senior central midfielder Brandon Knapp.
An eight-game winning streak propelled the Friars to the finals, where they lost, 2-1, to McDonogh.
The run to the finals in 2015 made Archbishop Curley one of the favorites to win the championship in 2016. The hype surrounding that group proved to be deserved, as the Friars earned the No. 1 seed in the MIAA "A" conference playoffs.
Against Calvert Hall in the championship game, Archbishop Curley fell behind before scoring twice to take the lead. Calvert Hall battled back, though, netting two goals during the final 15 minutes to win, 3-2.
The Friars finished the 2016 season 19-4-2.
"Going into last year's regular season, I thought we had the best team," Knapp said. "We'd played Calvert Hall twice during the year and knew it would be a battle, but we came up just short. This year we want to have the same experience, but hopefully win it this time."
This season looks like it should be another strong one for Archbishop Curley. The Friars are loaded with experience, led by 10 seniors.
Barry Stitz expects his team's greatest strength to be the spine of it. Starting up top, Ben Stitz is expected to be one of the state's top forwards. In the center of the midfield, Knapp and junior Anthony Dragisics form a hard-working and creative pair.
On defense, the Friars have Richardson, who has committed to Maryland and was named the state's Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior. A standout leader, Richardson has helped make the Friars' defense one of the area's staunchest since starting as a freshman. He also gets involved in the attack; Richardson finished with four goals and six assists last season.
"Our top four or five guys are as good as any in the state, region and the country at the high school level," Barry Stitz said. "Having the talent, it certainly starts there. We're also incredibly hungry; our guys aren't satisfied with being the runner-up. They want to get their names on a banner in the school."
Archbishop Curley will have stiff competition in its league. Mount St. Joseph has a large and talented senior class; McDonogh is expected to have a dynamic offense; and Loyola should be a threat after having an uncharacteristic down year in 2016.
When asked why it's taken as long as it has for Archbishop Curley to win another league championship, Barry Stitz immediately spoke about the MIAA "A" conference's quality and depth.
That hasn't stopped his players from thinking about what it would mean to have a different ending for this season.
"It's a dream of all of ours, especially the guys who have been here three years and made it twice already," Richardson said. "You just picture it every season -- getting there, lifting that trophy and bringing it back to school. There's a lot of ambition to have that happen this year."
Photo Credit: Wick Eisenberg/PressBox
Issue 237: September 2017