In Sunday's Loudoun Extra
On a rain-soaked field, 3-0 start still proves elusive for Freedom in loss to Kettle Run
Through three and a half quarters of of rain-soaked, penalty-filled football, the Freedom Eagles waited. After watching drive after drive stall on a holding penalty or missed blocking assignment, they needed one play to get back into Thursday's home opener against Kettle Run and give themselves a shot at the first 3-0 start in school history.
That play finally came with seven minutes remaining in an defensive struggle when junior quarterback Matt Malacane scrambled outside the pocket and connected with an open Patrick Donovan down the middle of the field for a 52-yard gain that gave the Eagles a first down on the Cougars' 17-yard line. But a pair of negative rushing plays with an illegal shift penalty in between forced Freedom to settle for a 35-yard field goal from Zack Shuster that tied the score at 3-3 and gave the ball back to Kettle Run with four minutes remaining.
From there, the Cougars marched 52 yards on nine consecutive running plays against a gassed Eagles' defense to set up Austin Hanzlik's 22-yard chip shot field goal with 1.3 seconds on the clock, handing a program still searching for success and stability yet another gut-wrenching defeat, 6-3.
Since their first varsity season in 2006, the Eagles have a 9-36 record including a 3-27 mark from 2007-09 and have gone 0-20 against AA Dulles District competition. Last fall, Freedom's first 2-0 start had the South Riding community buzzing, but the Eagles lost to the Cougars in their third game and failed to record a win the rest of the way. Now facing the exact same scenario, the team is determined to change its fortunes.
"We expected a good start this season," said Donovan, a three-year varsity player. "Last year we got complacent when we realized 'We're 2-0 and we've already got one more win than we had last year.' This season we have much higher expectations. We're not settling for a 2-0 start. We want to compete for a district title."
Second-year head coach Mick Mullins has focused his efforts on trying to change the football culture at Freedom, from increasing overall numbers and weight room participation to plucking athletes who have experienced success in other sports in the hope that their winning mentality might rub off on the rest of the group. In training camp he encouraged his players to celebrate after every touchdown and Thursday he kept his players from running onto the field until the students flanking their path began jumping up and down and cheering. Mullins and his players understand its a process, but after four years of losing, now is the time find a foothold.
"I knew what I was walking into when I came to this program," said junior transfer running back and defensive back Chris Cook who had double-digit tackles against the Cougars. "But it doesn't matter what this team has or hasn't done in the past, this is a group that has a chance to change that and really be special. We've just got to continue to fight."
For the Eagles (2-1) to shake their bottom rung status in the district, they must find consistency on offense. Freedom had more yards Thursday in penalities (10 for 109) than it did rushing (82 on 32 carries) and had 82 of its 115 passing yards on its final two attempts of the game. But even in defeat, there was reason for optimism. The Eagles stuffed Kettle Run three times inside the 5-yard line to force the game-winning field goal attempt which junior Daylin Aylor was inches away from deflecting. And on the final play, Malacane threw back to Chuck Thompson who hit the quarterback with a 30-yard double-pass that worked just as it was drawn up despite not reaching the end zone.
Friday Freedom hosts rivals Briar Woods - a school that opened the same year in Loudoun but has already reached the postseason twice in its short history and has already achieved the kind of success for which the Eagles are still searching.
"We just were a finger tip away and that's been the story of our season," Mullins said after Thursday's game. "We seem to be one broken tackle away and one miscue away, and those are steps that you take when you're trying to get better and raise the expectations of a program. You've got to have some success at some point, and we've had a little bit now. But we've got to fight through this."