In Scott Schartner’s eyes, they were a little on the small side.
The Urbana boys soccer coach looked at Luke Roberton, Will Micol and Carson Cooley three years ago and couldn’t picture them holding their own with some of the bigger and stronger upperclassmen around Frederick County. So he chose to roster them on the Hawks’ junior varsity team.
But Schartner did so reluctantly. He looked at the trio’s strong technical skills and wealth of soccer intelligence, and he felt the need to nurture that talent and accelerate their development.
“These guys come in, and it’s like, ‘We have to have these guys training with the varsity,’” Schartner said.
Up to that point in his 15-year coaching career, Schartner had never had more than two freshmen partaking in a varsity soccer training session. Back in 2015, however, he had five.
While Roberton, Micol and Cooley played in JV games, they practiced with a varsity team that included two other freshmen in Fabian Valenzuela-Ruz and Jack Eskay.
Schartner knew the five freshmen had played together for years on club soccer teams, and having them on the same field together would only improve that chemistry — and possibly create a quintet that would form a solid nucleus in the future.
“They’re kind of the backbone of our team in every way conceivable,” Schartner said three days before the Hawks’ Class 4A state final against Whitman at Loyola University’s Ridley Athletic Complex.
Now the five hope to lead the Hawks to their second state title in the past three years.
Asked about the importance of training with the varsity team in 2015, Roberton, Micol and Cooley valued the opportunity for five freshmen to endure growing pains together.
“Coming into this team, we didn’t really know what to expect,” said Micol, who now starts on a strong Urbana back line. “Coming into it together, we have a strong bond that kept us together.”
The group soon discovered that the Hawks not only had talent but brawn that could intimidate the best of players.
Center back Michael Maier and defensive center midfielder Colin Anderson both stood 6 feet, 4 inches tall. Some of the team’s best offensive weapons, Trent Tarnstrom and Kyle McQuillen, were also physically imposing.
As a freshman, Cooley started out at 5-10 and 130 pounds.
“[Maier] and Colin Anderson would always push me around in practice,” said Cooley, who is now at 6-2 and 165 pounds. “Now, if they came and practiced again, it would be a little bit different.”
If there’s anyone that best exemplifies Urbana’s style of play, which demands players to keep the ball on the ground and move the ball quickly, it’s Roberton. The senior midfielder said battling for possession with bigger, stronger players three years ago further showed the importance of limiting his touches once he received the ball.
“If I held onto the ball, I was going to get muscled around and lose it very quickly,” said Roberton, who leads the Hawks in goals (16) and assists (13). “I learned very quickly, playing simple, playing one- or two-touch and just being focused on keeping the ball and playing simple passes. That was definitely a big thing that I learned.”
The following season, all five freshmen found themselves playing on the varsity team, and because of all those varsity training sessions the previous year, the three freshmen that didn’t play games on the varsity level felt as if they had.
“With that freshman year, it gave us more of a head start, and we kind of hit the ground running,” Micol said.
That 2016 went on to win a state title, with Tarnstrom and Maier earning Frederick News-Post Offensive and Defensive player of the year honors, respectively. The way Roberton sees it, the contributions of others on the team meant just as much and that if Schartner hadn’t had all five freshmen on the 2015 train together, the Hawks may not have won their state championship.
Micol started on Urbana’s back line the entire season, but Roberton didn’t earn his starting spot as a defender until midway through the 2016 campaign. Valenzuela-Ruz, Eskay and Cooley were valuable reserves.
“There’s definitely that possibility because if he hadn’t allowed us to train on varsity, if he had kept us training with JV, I don’t think we would have improved as players as much as we did and played as much of an impactful role as we did on that 2016 squad,” Roberton said.
Cooley said he gained some soccer knowledge from several of his teammates, including Anderson and Tarnstrom, who now play collegiately at George Washington and Liberty, respectively. If there’s anything that all of Urbana’s current seniors waited to inherit from past Hawks stars, it’s their work ethic.
Schartner’s father, Middletown wrestling coach Jim Schartner, passed on some wisdom regarding positions of leadership in athletics.
“Your captain can be your best player, but if your captain isn’t your hardest worker, you’ve got problems,” Jim Schartner told his son.
Scott Schartner never had such problems with players such as Anderson, Justin Mittereder and Keneth Morales assuming the role of team captains.
Roberton, Cooley and Micol all find themselves wearing captain armbands, and they credit those before them for showing them the way.
Cooley recalls Anderson’s unmatched intensity, saying Anderson was “insanely competitive. He hated losing — hated it.” Mittereder and Morales also set an example.
“Those two were probably two of the hardest working, most competitive players I’ve ever played with — ever,” Cooley said. “Watching them, what they have every single day in practices and in games, I was definitely taking notes from them.”
The seniors now find themselves playing the role of mentors on a team that is similar to the 2015 squad. Both freshmen Max Riley and Conor Roberton start on the Hawks while two other freshmen on the JV team, Jed Hart and Austin Holloway, have trained with the varsity team for the entire season.
But Cooley quickly points out that others on the team, especially seniors such as Valenzuela-Ruz and Eskay, aren’t afraid to show leadership, whether it be verbally or by example.
“[Eskay is] pretty quiet on the field, but I don’t think there’s anyone who works harder than he does in practice,” Cooley said. “[Others] follow his lead.”
Friday will mark the end of the seniors’ high careers, and however it turns out, they will have cherished a long journey during which they’ve grown together on and off the field.
“The five of us have become super tight over the past couple of years,” Roberton said. “I got some great friends out of it.”