In its five years of existence, the Baltimore Celtic club soccer program has won six national titles.
This week, the program looks to add three more with a club-record three teams qualifying for to the 2019 US Youth National Championships in Overland Park, Kan. The three teams are in the 16-and-under, 17-and-under and 19-and-under age groups.
All three teams held a final practice July 20 at Mount Saint Joseph High School ahead of the tournament, which begins July 23 with games running through July 28 and features the top boys' and girls' club soccer teams from across the country.
"Today for us it was more about getting the legs ready to go and fine-tuning the set pieces and little details," said U-16 head coach Mike St. Martin, who also coaches the Mount Saint Joseph boys' soccer team. "For all three teams to be out here, I think that's pretty special to have all three training at the same time and hopefully having the same goal to win it all."
For Celtic's younger teams, they will look to the U-19s as an example of how to navigate a national tournament. The U-19 squad is seeking a third straight national title after taking the 2017 and 2018 championships.
"It's a huge deal. A three-peat in anything in sports is huge," said Ben Stitz, a forward on the U-19 team who scored a key goal in extra time of the 2018 final. "Just being able to do that shows the dominance of a team and a club and that will go a long way in this area drawing players to the club."
Stitz, a 2018 graduate of Archbishop Curley, completed his freshman season at the University of Pennsylvania last fall. He said he returned to Celtic for nationals to pay back the club that helped him reach his goal of playing college soccer.
"Obviously the club has done a lot for me. So, it was about playing somewhere that I've played the last two years," Stitz said. "That's what I wanted to do but also it's more games to prepare me for the college season, ultimately. I also want to win again. The three-peat is a great opportunity."
The U-19 squad will face teams from California, Minnesota and Pennsylvania in group play. The top two teams in each group advance to the semifinals. The U-17s are in Group A and will face teams from Washington, Florida and Texas, while the U-16s will face teams from New York, Montana and Texas in Group A.
"I'm definitely excited, especially seeing what the older teams have done for the club. It's cool to finally get our opportunity to keep doing what they've done," said Van Danielson, a midfielder on the U-16 team and a rising junior at Mount Saint Joseph. "What I've heard is it's going to be a battle. You just have to be prepared to do whatever it takes. It almost comes down to a little bit of luck and heart. Whoever can leave it all out on the field."
For U-16 midfielder Brian St. Martin, a rising sophomore at Mount Saint Joseph, seeing the older Celtic players on the sidelines during a game will be added motivation to represent the program.
"They've been there before and we just try to be like them and try to bring it home," St. Martin said. "We've won a lot in the past so it's cool to continue the tradition of winning."
U-17 coach David Nesbitt, a veteran coach of more than 30 years, knows about winning a national title. He coached the U-19 Baltimore Spirit team that included his son, Matt, to a McGuire Cup championship in 1994.
Now Nesbitt is looking for another title with the Celtic U-17s, which features his grandson, Liam.
"We wound up playing six showcase tournaments. We did exceptionally well before 170 college coaches during the year," Nesbitt said. "They now have begun to understand that there is a next step. There's a process to athletics and they've got to be focused."
"In retrospect, what a lot of these guys will do is sit back and say this has been a hell of a year," Nesbitt added.
Spencer Hanks, a forward on the U-17 team who is committed to UMBC, has never been to a national tournament but is eager to add another national title to Celtic's trophy case.
"Just the opportunity to do big things like this and go do tournaments and travel and win national championships. Every team, that's the goal," said Hanks, a rising senior at Arundel High School and the Capital Gazette's 2018 boys' player of the year in Anne Arundel County.
Celtic coach Anthony Adams said the club program was created to help support players who sought to balance both high school and club soccer.
"There are certain leagues that play year round, like the Development Academy, and there's nothing wrong with that but in Baltimore, high school is still pretty important," said Adams, a UMBC alumnus who has served on UMBC's men's soccer staff for 22 years. "And plus, it's all about the experience, not only soccer. I think Celtic was a club that wanted to support that. So you could come play high school and still play club and get to a great college."
Celtic players like Stitz have seen the advantage of playing at a high-profile club translate to getting noticed by college coaches. Celtic's 2019 class has more than 30 players committed to playing soccer at Division I, II and III schools.
Two players, Isaac Ngobu and Justin Harris, will play at Maryland in the fall. Elijah Miller and Ezekiel Ayilola are headed to UMBC. Other schools represented include William & Mary, Salisbury University, Villanova, Loyola and Penn State.
"If you look back on the history of Baltimore soccer, Baltimore has always had great players and great teams. I think with all these youth clubs, you're getting all the talent together whereas back in the day it might have been ... in little pockets," Adams said. "These clubs are drawing not only from the Baltimore area but from all over Maryland ... because they know if they can come and be a part of one of these teams, they'll have a great experience and have a lot of doors open for them for college soccer."
Photo Credit: Brooks DuBose/PressBox