McDonogh’s DeSmit and Neal from Perry Hall are VSN’s best in girls soccer; Smoot captures Coach of the Year honors

by Nelson Coffin

Varsity Sports Network is proud to introduce our 2019 Girls Soccer Players and Coach of the Year. Baylee DeSmit led top-ranked McDonogh School to another IAAM A Conference championship, earning her Player of the Year accolades. Aya Neal was the backbone of a Perry Hall defensive effort that carried the Baltimore County to a second straight Class 4A state title, and Defensive Player of the Year honors.

After losing most of the firepower from Perry Hall’s historic title team in 2018, Matt Smoot reinvented the Gators for another successful championship run. Smoot is Coach of the Year.

Congratulations to Bailee, Aya and Matt. The trio were kind enough to share their stories with us, including the video interview below.





DeSmit delivered big-time for McDonogh this fall

by Nelson Coffin

Perry Hall High coach Matt Smoot didn’t need advanced analytics or fancy metrics to figure out that Baylee DeSmit is an elite soccer player.

His own eyes told him all he needed to know.

Smoot was watching warmups before his Gators, who would ultimately claim a second consecutive Class 4A state title, opened their season against top-ranked McDonogh School at the inaugural IAAM Challenge at Mercy’s sparkling new Sisters of Mercy Athletic Complex in early September.

It didn’t take Smoot very long to figure out that the Eagle standout was the real deal.

“I didn’t know that much about her coming into the game,” the 2019 VSN Girls Soccer Coach of the Year said. “But even in warmups you could tell that she just has a presence. She was just so effortless. You could tell right away how good she is.”

Even though the junior striker did not ripple the net in the 3-0 McDonogh triumph, DeSmit created several dangerous chances for her teammates in attempts to add to their advantage.

Over the Eagles’ next 16 games, 15 of which they won, DeSmit was an offensive force, totaling 20 goals and 11 assists as McDonogh (16-1 overall) captured the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference title for the third time in a row and the eighth in the past decade.

The Eagles’ only loss was a mid-season 1-0 setback to third-ranked Mercy, which knocked them temporarily from the No. 1 slot in the VSN Top 20 and out of the running to claim the top spot in Top Drawer Soccer’s FAB 50 High School Soccer Team Rankings. McDonogh finished No. 4 in the nation in those rankings.

“We had multiple chances to score,” DeSmit said. “We were disappointed. It helped us grow stronger. But we bounced back and showed what kind of team we could be.”

In the playoffs this fall, DeSmit was all but unstoppable.

In a 5-0 stampede of St. Paul’s School in a conference semifinal, the Loyola University commit’s goal in the fifth minute against a stiffening wind helped to quickly unravel the Gators’ plan to keep the score close in the early going.

She added a pair of assists in the second half as McDonogh wrapped up the game early to advance to the final against No. 2 Archbishop Spalding.

DeSmit, similar to last year’s outing against the Cavaliers in the championship match when she scored three times, was energetic and efficient, notching a pair of goals in the second half of the Eagles’ 3-1 victory.

Those goals, combined with her goal in a 1-0 verdict over Spalding in the regular season finale, showed that DeSmit’s impact on the team continues to be considerable following a stellar sophomore season.

The youngest of five children, she said playing with her four older brothers helped to develop her skills.

“I would always be out there with them shooting, dribbling and having fun,” she said. “My parents and brothers always told me that practice makes permanent.”

DeSmit said that there was an intangible element to the Eagles’ winning ways as well under coach Harry Canellakis.

“We were close on and off the field,” she said. “We went on a team-bonding trip to West Virginia. Our connections helped us succeed.”





Neal’s invaluable leadership and play guided Perry Hall back to champion status

by Nelson Coffin

Having graduated most of its most prolific offensive players from 2018’s Class 4A state championship squad, Perry Hall was not supposed to repeat in Class 4A in 2019.

That is, until a mid-season change in the Gators’ defensive personnel propelled them on another title run that ended with a shootout victory over then-No. 4 Severna Park.

Perry Hall (11-6), which finished fourth in the final VSN Top 20, was 14th when it rolled into the final against a strong Falcon contingent sporting a sparkling 15-2-2 mark.

It didn’t matter, though, because by that time the Gators staunch backline was playing lights-out with 2019 VSN Soccer Defender of the Year Aya Neal and senior teammates Caroline Warns, Caroline Rosenthal and Mackenzie Click protecting junior keeper Brenna Ellenberger.

“Halfway through the season, we asked coach (2019 VSN Girls Coach of the Year Matt Smoot) if we could go back to our original personnel,” Neal said about the same foursome that helped the Gators to last year’s crown. “After that, we started allowing less goals and scoring more. We took off after that.”

The improvement did not take long to manifest itself.

“Our morale was upbeat,” Neal said. “We were working better together on the field.”

And once they reached the playoffs, things really started to click.

With Neal leading the way, the Gators allowed only one goal in their postseason run.

“Aya just has very few weaknesses,” Smoot said about the Charleston Southern University signee.”She clears the ball well and is comfortable off the dribble. She knows not to dribble into bad situations. And she’s an offensive threat, even though she doesn’t score much because she keeps her head up and is able to get the ball to the right places.”

Her leadership skills and physical tenacity are other strong suits, Smoot said.

“She’s absolutely fearless in the air,” Smoot added. “She won’t shy away from contact. And she’s learned to be a vocal leader on the field — and we needed that. She not mean-spirited, but she demands a certain level of play from her teammates.”

The under-appreciated aspect of Neal’s game is her long-range shooting ability.

She took most of the free kicks for the Gators, and curved in a 30-yard blast to beat Towson in a key Baltimore County match for her only goal of the season..

“It was amazing,” Neal said. “I even did a little dance (after the goal) and my teammates laughed at me.”

Showing her versatility, Neal also buried her penalty kick in the shootout win over Severna Park.

“Knowing our backline was solid, we were confident going into the game,” she said. “As defending champs, we knew we had a target on our backs, but we didn’t let that stop us. We never doubted ourselves. We played hard and did our best, and that’s all you can ask.”




Smoot listened, Gators delivered another state championship

by Nelson Coffin

At a mid-season meeting of the seniors on Perry Hall High’s soccer squad, the players had a proposal for coach Matt Smoot that they thought would help the Gators get back in a groove.

The fact that Smoot listened says a lot about the kind of coach — and person — the 2019 VSN Girls Soccer Coach of the Year is.

“We were just wondering at that point if we were going to find the right formula,” Smoot said. “I could tell things weren’t going the way they needed to go through the first part of the season. We had a meeting with the seniors, and said, ‘OK, guys, what do you want?’ We allowed them to take a leadership role and we wanted them to feel comfortable.”

Despite losses to No. 1 McDonogh School and second-ranked Archbishop Spalding, in addition to setbacks against Baltimore County rivals Hereford and Sparrows Point, neither Smoot nor his players had given up on salvaging the season

Smoot not only listened, he acted positively to the suggestion to reunite last year’s alignment of current seniors Aya Neal, Caroline Warns, Caroline Rosenthal and Mackenzie Click on the backline.

It would become an integral component of the Gators’ eventual run to a second straight Class 4A title.

“We started allowing less goals and scoring more,” 2019 VSN Defender of the Year Neal said about the change that put Perry Hall on the path to a repeat. “We took off after that.”

Smoot would also add that by that time younger players, such as sophomores Kyleigh Gough and Hannah O’Guinn, had matured and improved to the point where Perry Hall was a legitimate contender in the Class 4A postseason tournament.

With the senior quartet clicking in the back in front of junior keeper Brenna Ellenberger, playoff rivals had a tough time breaking through.

In fact, the Gators allowed only one goal in the postseason while scoring 14 times.

“The back-four were among the best athletes we’ve ever had,” Smoot said.

Even so, then-No. 14 Perry Hall was a decided underdog in the 4A final against fourth-ranked Severna Park, which was sporting a sparkling 15-2-2 mark compared to the Gators’ 10-6 record.

Smoot, though, figured he could neutralize some of the Falcons’ strengths.

“We looked at Severna Park as a team that would give us problems athletically,” Smoot said. “But defensively we thought we could hold our own — and then win a war of attrition.”

That’s exactly what happened, as the defense held the Falcons to a scoreless deadlock through regulation and two overtimes.

Perry Hall then prevailed in a shootout, 4-3, after Neal, Rosenthal and Warns all buried their penalty kicks before senior forward Erin Marcizewski secured the victory with a blast into the net on her PK.

The win meant that Smoot is the first girls soccer coach from a Baltimore County school to go back-to-back in Class 4A.

“As a coach, I think (repeating in 4A) not only represents the level of coaching and athlete at Perry Hall, but it also speaks to the caliber of coaching and competition on the rise in the county,” Smoot said. “It’s important that our young Baltimore athletes know that they can play soccer for their high school and their community and still receive a high level of development in their soccer skills and soccer IQ.”