Aug. 31—Expectations can be the kill or cure line for a team. They have the power to be overwhelmingly detrimental if too bought into, resulting in overlooking opponents, or potentially a central motivator if carefully balanced.
When Jon Salbeck inherited a defending state champion in his first year as the Fallston girls soccer coach, he was tasked with managing the accompanying expectations.
Sign up for Yahoo Sports AM: All the sports, all in one place
He did it once and this year, he's working to chase history by doing it again.
The 2021 Fallston team raised the Class 1A state title trophy without a blemish on their record, setting an expectation within the program to carry the torch through a coaching change.
But the 2022 Cougars hit their inflection point early — a 1-0 opening night loss to Hereford.
"When we started out, they were going in still undefeated," Salbeck said. "First game we play, we go to double overtime and lose. I was like, 'Alright, it happened, you're not undefeated this season. You can either sit here and harp on it or you can just take it to the next team.' From there on, I saw the maturity of the team; how they didn't let it bother them game after game after game."
Fallston's only lost two more times, back-to-back games in late September to John Carroll and Bel Air, before cruising to a second-straight state title.
Salbeck used the phrase "Ground Zero" to explain his strategy for avoiding championship hangover.
"Coming in last year, I was aware of how good the team was the year prior," Salbeck said. "I knew there was like a monkey on our back with a new staff. That was a big obstacle to not only win their trust but the parents' and the community's trust."
One tactic was to be intentional with his halftime meetings.
When the girls huddled at intermission, Salbeck wouldn't dump his first-half analysis on them. He'd ask what they saw and how they're understanding the flow of the match. That approach both exemplified his trust while helping the girls become more self-aware on the pitch.
Salbeck now faces a similar test of treading the expectations that come with being "the hunted," not only in Harford County but in the state moving to Class 2A East Region I. Especially considering the second-year coach believes this year's roster may surpass its predecessors.
"I think this year is a more talented group all together," Salbeck said. "A lot of the girls that were underclassmen last year have put in more work in the offseason weight training or getting faster and stronger honing their skills coming into this year. ... First touches and the way they communicate it has been such a big difference."
Much of the onus this season falls on the shoulders of senior Ava Lambros, junior Sarah Farally and sophomore Sydney McLaughlin.
The Aegis: Top stories
Lambros brings speed and physicality as well as the technical capabilities to beat defenders one on one. She netted five goals with 12 assists last year. Farally had six goals and 10 assists as a piece the Cougars rely on to control the pace. McLaughlin is a strong all-around player who was called up to varsity a year ago becoming a key contributor in their playoff run.
Who's the player the girls think could surprise people? That's Rachel Harding, a freshman who works as hard as anyone on the roster, they said.
The young depth is another unique trait of this year's team, uplifting their championship expectations.
"I think we have a certain style how we play," Lambros said. "We're very possessive of the ball. We used to be very kick-and-run. Now we're more, possess the ball and move forward. Let's find feet and everybody pretty much gets it. I feel like we all click really easy."
Team bonding has helped shape their on-field connection, too. Spikeball tournaments, the World Cup mini-game, Halloween costume practices and endless team dinners seamlessly translate to their free-flowing on-field style.
Fallston opens its season Sept. 5, again facing Hereford. Then, the Cougars have Mercy and Rising Sun, followed by rematches against Bel Air (Sept. 14) and John Carroll (Sept. 19).
Farally said winning back-to-back state titles is their motivator for a third. They know the feeling and are hungry to chase it again. Defender Addison Rees qualified that they're not a cocky team. "That can come back to bite you," she said. "Like Coach Jon says, 'It's one game at a time.'"