With the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association soccer playoffs in full swing, Hereford's girls' team is one to keep an eye on.
Hereford enters the 2A state playoffs with a 12-2-1 record. The Bulls haven't lost since Sept. 15 and have won eight straight games. On Oct. 24, Hereford beat Sparrows Point to win the Baltimore County championship.
"We've gotten better at not stressing so much," Hereford senior center back Erin Williams said. "We're no longer stepping on the field and wondering if we'll win; we've started playing with more confidence. That helps us enjoy it while playing, and it's easier to play good soccer with that mindset."
Hereford head coach Brad Duvall was confident his group would be strong in 2017. The Bulls reached the MPSSAA 2A regional final in 2016 with a roster composed largely of juniors, headlined by all-state forward Danielle Maggio, and Duvall knew this year's freshmen class featured players who should be able to contribute right away.
Hereford's chances took a hit early on though when Maggio's campaign ended in the preseason with an injury. Maggio's absence made room in the starting lineup for freshman forward Payton Patrick, who had been expected to spend the season in a smaller role while learning from Maggio.
The offense experienced some growing pains early in the year but has evolved into a juggernaut with the ultra-speedy Patrick as the centerpiece. She has 22 goals and 14 assists, both team highs. She's also formed a partnership with Hereford's two other starting forwards -- juniors Rachel Saunders and Lily Robertson.
"Our attacking players are very dynamic individuals, but they've also figured out how to play with each other," Duvall said. "All of our forwards are able score quickly. They can get around defenders, get open and finish, which is something we haven't always had."
Its explosive offense has led to Hereford being able to score in bunches against top teams. The Bulls scored five goals against Dulaney, four against Perry Hall and three against Sparrows Point.
The Bulls' overtime victory against C. Milton Wright Oct. 2 helped jump-start their season after a slow start, but beating Perry Hall Oct. 10 stands out as the group's marquee win of the regular season. Hereford had not beaten Perry Hall, which was an MPSSAA 4A state finalist in 2016, during Duvall's six-year tenure as head coach, but the team was able to pull out a 4-2 win after trailing 1-0 at halftime.
The victory against Perry Hall also catapulted the Bulls into the Baltimore County championship game. In that contest, Sparrows Point led 2-1 late in the second half before Patrick scored the tying goal with 2:36 remaining. Senior midfielder Kara Schmidt went on to score the game-winner with 46 seconds left in the contest.
"A cross came through, it went over the defender who was on me and it fell to me," Schmidt said. "I just hit it around the goalie. Then we all came together and celebrated for a few moments. I was really excited, but there was still some time left, so we immediately started talking about not having a letdown and clearing the ball when you can."
Hereford was able to hold on to win the championship, 3-2. Sparrows Point, which has won four straight MPSSAA 1A state championships, had won the past three Baltimore County titles.
The hope for Duvall and his players is to continue to win titles this season. Hereford last won a regional title in 2014, and the program's lone state championship came in 2000.
Carrying the momentum from their Baltimore County championship triumph may prove difficult for the Bulls, however. Hereford's first playoff game is not scheduled until Nov. 3, so Duvall's main focus is for his players not to get rusty during the extended layoff.
The excitement surrounding the team is not expected to lessen, though. The Bulls have developed a following as the season has progressed, and becoming Baltimore County champions has only added to it.
"It started slow," Duvall said. "We only had 20 people out to watch early in the year, but our last home game against Dulaney we almost had a packed house. What I keep hearing is how fast we are and fun to watch. So many people have wanted to see video of the winning goal against Sparrows Point, and are asking when our next game is. We've gotten a lot of interest lately, so I think we'll have a big crowd on our side throughout the playoffs."
Photo Credit: Courtesy Photo/Tracey Blair