The Courtland-Salem playoff matchup last year was just a football game, albeit an important one for a team conditioned to accept nothing less than victory.
However, in the part of Spotsylvania County that encompasses the Courtland high school district, the football team belongs to much more than the players, their families and their friends. In few places in the Washington metropolitan area is football as much a part of the entire community as it is in Courtland, and that is why a Cougars loss seems to stop the world.
The memory of the 21-7 loss to Salem in the finals of the Virginia AAA Northwest Region playoffs, still is prominent in the mind of Courtland and they are using it for motivation this season.
"That was devastating," said all-state senior Todd Cook, a 6-foot, 240-pound offensive guard and defensive nose tackle. "I just sat in the corner and no one said a thing in the locker room. It was weird to see so many of your friends -- who you been through so much with and who you had seen accomplish so much -- sit there crying."
The Cougars, who between 1982 and 1985 won three state AA championships, opened this season with a 61-0 victory over nearby Spotsylvania. Last Friday, Courtland controlled Potomac, 14-0, in a key district game. If Courtland can get past visiting Woodbridge tomorrow night, there will be little to prevent the Cougars from claiming a second straight Commonwealth District championship.
But that title may be the Cougars' last for a while, at least at the AAA level. Next year, a new high school is scheduled to open about four miles from rapidly-expanding Courtland. It will relieve enough overcrowding at the school, which opened in 1980, to drop it back to AA.
Another speculation is whether Coach Ken Brown will be able to resist the temptation to move to the new school. He had coached for 10 years at Spotsylvania, winning six Battlefield District titles, before moving to Courtland with assistants Paul Neal, Tim Coleman and Rick Holcomb.
"I went to Courtland because I wanted an opportunity to help start a new program where you didn't have to rely on any previous restrictions or traditions," said Brown. "We had a chance to start a new tradition, and because we started winning right away, the whole community got behind us.
"But I have never even thought about the new school. That is a long way off. I am only concerned with this season."
This season has the potential to be a very good one. Many people believe Brown, who is 72-6-2 since 1981, has assembled his best team ever.
If Courtland is loaded with talent, other Commonwealth teams better look out because this team has traditionally won with preparation second to none and a simple refusal to lose. Prior to this season, only one player, tight end/linebacker Jason Wilson, now a freshman at Virginia Tech, has ever earned an NCAA Division I-A scholarship.
"One reason we have so much success is because we don't make mistakes and everybody on this team and the whole community think we are going to win," said fullback/defensive end Tim Canada, who along with Cook, defensive back Stephan Banks and linebacker Alan Heddings will probably all be at Division I-A universities next fall. "It has become tradition to win. If a game is close, we will find a way to win."
In the past, the ball always seemed to bounce Courtland's way - if the Cougars hadn't already pushed it there. Last season, they won a game in the closing minute by recovering an opponent's bad punt snap in the end zone for a touchdown.
For more than 30 minutes before an opening kickoff, and whenever the Cougars are threatening to put away an opponent during the game, their fans revive another tradition -- the rallying cry of "RAW MEAT." The phrase is not just lost in the night air.
"Courtland takes advantage of every mistake a team makes and they look to go for a big play right away after it," said Potomac Coach Bill Brown. "It is like a bunch of sharks you see in a movie swimming calmly in the water, but as soon as they see blood, look out, because they will be swarming."
To Ken Brown, it is a matter of upholding his coaching philosophy. "There is a difference in expecting to win and hoping to win. I don't think our athletes as a whole are any better than most other places. We really haven't had any superstars until this year, but we have always had depth. Most important is that our coaches know the excellence level it takes to win."
The football tradition, and the position the team holds among a community which will regularly account for more than 2,000 fans at away games, almost makes it an honor to be on the team. The attrition rate, from players who start out with the freshman team, is small even among players who will be no more than backups for four years.
So talented that he could not be held back is sophomore Brian Culley. The 6-foot, 170-pound halfback has averaged 108 yards rushing over his first two varsity games.
Although Courtland's stay at the AAA level may conclude this season as just a two-year journey, it looks like it's going to be an impressive one.
"The captains remind the players before we take the field how bad that loss felt last year," said Ken Brown. "They let them know they did not want to feel that way again."