Four weeks ago, McKinley was defeated by top-ranked Archbishop Carroll, 47-6. It was a football game McKinley Coach Hank Saunders and most of his players admit they virtually had no chance of winning.
"We were pitiful," said senior running back/defensive end Charles Adams. "We were not ready to play a Carroll back then. Our summer practices just weren't worth much. You can't do much with 10 guys out there."
Gideon Fobbs, a 5-foot-7, 155-pound quarterback with Doug Flutie-style courage, leadership and ability to pull off the big play, said the offensive line and the timing just weren't right, and there was no way McKinley could be competitive.
"We were late starting and had to sort of throw the kids to the dogs," said Saunders, who is in his fourth year as a head coach. "We didn't do the things in August we were supposed to because the kids just weren't out. We really had to teach in a hurry."
Saunders and his players don't like to be reminded of the loss to Carroll. But they say the game provides a good barometer of how far McKinley has come. And they have come a ways.
After that loss, the Trainers lost to Allegany (28-6), but rebounded with victories over H.D. Woodson (7-6), Wilson (12-6) and last week, Wilson (26-20), in triple overtime. The Trainers had never previously defeated Woodson.
The penalties, turnovers and uninspired play evident against Carroll have all but disappeared.
"It just took time. We had to get in condition, work on our basics and just get things together," said tackle Reggie Lewis. "Once we got things together, we knew we would be better."
Saunders, who has been affiliated with McKinley football since 1972, saw the turnabout coming in the Allegany game.
"We played much better than the score shows. I saw then we were very close to where we wanted to be," he said. "Then, we beat Woodson. That gave the school and our kids something positive to build around. Woodson was the talk of the town, and by beating them, it provided our kids with some confidence."
In fact, Saunders is positive his team, though lacking the depth and overall talent of McKinley teams of the past, has the potential to compete for the West Division title and to win the school's first Interhigh League crown in 14 years.
"We almost won (the West Division) three years ago but we lost in the playoffs to Dunbar," Saunders said. "I like this team. We have a good nucleus of players who have been around three years. Our veterans will have to provide the necessary plays down the stretch."
Fobbs, a scrambler with a surprisingly strong arm, is the key to an offense that has not been as productive as Saunders hoped. Adams and James Holbrook, both of whom also play defense, are good running backs, but the offensive line needs much improvement. McKinley (3-3) had not scored more than one touchdown in any of its games before last week against Wilson.
"We had started school before we had a complete offensive line," Lewis said. "We were getting individual efforts but not the team effort you need. The line is just now beginning to gel."
Holbrook, who had an interception in the final minutes to stop a Woodson drive, said that once players started coming to practice and showing genuine interest, the entire complexion of the team changed.
"We had guys who couldn't play because of poor grades, guys who wouldn't play because they wouldn't deal with Coach Saunders' rules, and that made it hard to have any good practices," Holbrook said. "For a while, all we had was the seniors."
Now that things have begun to shape up "On the Hill," Saunders is feeling much better these days.
"I know we have to concentrate more on our offense, but when you have so many new people, it takes time," he said. "I know I would love to play Carroll again."
Since that is impossible (there is no championship game matching the Interhigh and Metro champions), Saunders and his players will have to be content chasing the Interhigh League title.