Photo by Kyle McFadden/The Commuter.

‘Battle tested’ Cougars embrace underdog role, aim for deep playoff run

With a rookie head coach and a roster consisted of 17 freshman, expectations at the beginning of the season were relatively unknown for FCC men’s soccer.

After all, they were fresh off a pedestrian 9-8 season. How could things possibly get better with an untested head coach and a team that lacks overall experience?

Statements that cast doubt, and questions like the previous one above, have fueled the Cougars to their best season in school history – a 13-3- 1 record and share of the Maryland Junior College Athletic Conference title.

“We embrace being the underdogs,” said John LaRocca, who is in his first at the helm of Cougars men’s soccer. “That’s what got us here. We were not the favorites to start the season.”

Their 13 wins is what athletic director Rodney Bennett believes as the most in school history. And after a first round bye in the NJCAA Region XX Division I tournament, FCC is set to face Southern Maryland – a team they beat 5-1 on Oct. 18 – in the semifinal round on Wednesday, Oct. 26 at 4:00 pm at CCBC Dundalk.

The Cougars roll into Wednesday’s playoff tilt with a 10-game winning-streak that dates back to September 11. Over that span, they’ve played virtually flawless soccer, outscoring their opposition 54-8.

“We refuse to lose,” LaRocca said. “We refuse to lose in practice. We refuse to lose in the weight room. We refuse to lose in anything. … That’s why we won so many games in the second half.”

The “refuse to lose” mentality is spearheaded by a defense coming into its own. After fiddling with personnel packages, LaRocca has found a defensive quartet that has operated at near perfection.

Christian Deynes, Bilal Hassane Souley, Quincy Tyler and Preston Windnagle have anchored the backend, allowing 0.8 goals per game over the decisive run while producing four shutouts.

“We knew what we wanted in the team, we knew what we had to improve,” Hassane Souley said. “We all just fit. Everybody went outside of practice to get better. … We just keep working.”

LaRocca, who commends his coaching staff and predecessor, Rich Roby, for laying a sturdy foundation and guiding him through the daily routine, has made leaps and bounds since taking over the head coaching position back in February. Decisions like the ones made to his defense is a testament to his growing managerial knowledge.

He’s also becoming accustomed on how to handle adversity.

“I’ve learned that sometimes you have make a lot of unpopular decisions for the better of the program,” LaRocca said. “And I’ve learned if good things happen, then you get a lot of credit, but if bad things happen, you’re the first person they look at.”

On Friday, LaRocca had to make one of those “unpopular decisions” by releasing forwards Maycol Nunez, who broke the FCC single-season scoring record on Oct. 5, and Hein Aung. Nunez, on top of his scoring record, led the state in goals with 22 along with the NJCAA across the country in goals per game with 2.2.

Losing a nationally renowned player on the brink of postseason play isn’t what LaRocca envisioned, but he said it was a decision that was “internally” best for the team. Though it comes at an unfortunate time, it’s spurred extra competition in practice in the most pivotal point of the season.

“Not one person got us to our position,” LaRocca said. “Players are excited to fill those spots. I think we had one of our best practices [Friday]. It’s the next man up with us. I believe, top to bottom, we are the deepest team in the conference.”

While Nunez accounted for 33 percent of the Cougars offense (22 of 66 goals), LaRocca has utmost confidence his bunch can produce the offense needed to propel them to the national tournament.

Players like Carlos Granados Torres (six goals, nine assists), Ivan Gutierrez (five goals, two assists), Guillermo Marenco (four goals, four assists), Deynes (four goals, three assists), Adam Needle (four goals, two assists) and Joel Ramirez (three goals, four assists) are all players expected to carry the offensive load.

Gustavo Garcia, one of six sophomores and a team captain who has been limited to six games due to nagging injuries, is set to make a return in the third round.

No other player has improved more than wing Luis Flores (three goals, four assists). After seeing barely a minute of action against conference co-champion, CCBC Essex, Flores has gradually seen more playing time each game and has started six times during the 10-game winning-streak.

“He’s really stuck out to me,” LaRocca said of Flores. “That’s a guy who is really playing well.”

Though Nunez’s dismissal may seem like a detrimental blow, LaRocca and company only view it as a small blip on the radar. Even so, every time FCC has been face-to- face with hardship or uncertainty they’ve answered resoundingly.

“That’s why this team is the first team to get a banner,” LaRocca said of his team’s ability to respond to pressure and embrace the underdog role.”

The mental tests the Cougars have already been through will only prepare them for what’s to come. 

Though their semifinal game against Southern Maryland appears favorable – given FCC beat them by four goals less than a week ago – it’s still playoff soccer, and one bad game will send a team packing.

“We’ve had a lot of young kids who have been thrown into the fire so to speak, and they have survived just about every test,” Bennett said. “They’re battle tested.”

Say if FCC wins on Wednesday, they will play the winner of CCBC Essex /Harford on Saturday, Oct. 29 at CCBC Dundalk at 1:30 pm. The Cougars’ beat Harford, 4-1, on Oct. 9, but their lone conference loss came to CCBC Essex in a one-goal game earlier in the season.

LaRocca said they “weren’t ready” and they Cougars have “improved so much” since then.

To get to the national tournament that will take place November 14-19 in Tyler, Texas, FCC will need to win the semifinal game on Wednesday and the regional final on Saturday to win Region 20. The winner of Region 20 will host the winner of Region 12 on November 5, which makes up six colleges from Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.

Worldwide, 12 teams will qualify for the NJCAA National Championship.

“I think if this team sticks together with the same drive and motivation they’ve had all season, and they maintain their composure in some big-time moments, I think we have a tremendous shot going to nationals,” Bennett said. “Every team we have to play, we’ve beaten. And the one we didn’t, we lost in overtime, 2-1. We’re right there.”

The Cougars are favorites going into Wednesday’s contest, but every game after that, the underdog label and doubt-filled questions will bob to the surface like they did throughout the regular season.

What is FCC going to do without their top goal scorer? How are they going to win with 17 freshmen and only six sophomores? Will the rookie head coach know what to do in the climax of a playoff game?

LaRocca answered simply.

“We embrace doubters, we embrace the chip on our shoulder,” he said. “We’re excited for the challenge.”

Kyle McFadden is the editor-in-chief of The Commuter and has his own weekly column called K-Fadd’s Cauldron. He also co-owns, manages and reports for Maryland Sports Access, where he covers many beats, including Maryland high school sports, college basketball and college football. He’s also a freelance sports journalist for The Baltimore Sun and The Frederick News-Post, covering colleges and high schools.

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