Before a crowd of hundreds of parents and onlookers on a warm, sunny day earlier this month, the green-and-white-clad Peppermill Pirates dominated the football field, becoming a colorful blur that ran over their opponents from Wheaton to score touchdown after touchdown.
It was just another day's work for this year's undefeated champions of Montgomery County's Capital Beltway League's 110-pound weight class, a group of youngsters that has not lost a game in three years.
"I pinch myself every day," said head coach Clarence Harrison. "This has been an unbelievable ride."
The Nov. 11 victory over Wheaton has propelled Peppermill into a playoff game on Saturday, where it will face the Silver Hill Bears from Prince George's County in the semifinals of the Metropolitan Area Youth Super Bowl.
Though Peppermill and its members are from Prince George's County, Montgomery County includes the team in its league because a team from the same community already competes in the Prince George's league. And if Peppermill is successful on Saturday, it will go on to the "Super Bowl" on Dec. 1 against a team from the District of Columbia or Fairfax County. Winning there would give Peppermill its third straight Super Bowl victory.
Harrison, 42, said that while he is glad the team is on a winning streak, victory is not the team's primary focus.
"We don't stress 'win, win, win,' " he said. "We stress 'work, work, work.' "
Amid the area's recent surge in violent crimes committed by youths, the team members from this central Prince George's community are successfully channeling their energy into athletic competition.
"In my opinion, this is keeping lots of our kids off the streets," said Dorothy McLean, mother of 14-year-old wide receiver Michael McLean, a ninth-grader at Laurel High School.
Throughout Montgomery County, about 600 youngsters are involved in the Beltway League, one of several youth leagues in the county.
Champions are not made overnight, and the team's members and supporters credit its success to a rigorous practice schedule, strong parental support and dedicated coaches.
Summer practices are "very strenuous," Harrison said, involving six sessions a week that average three hours each. During the school year, the team practices about four hours a week, meeting on the Friday before a game to view films of previous contests.
Harrison, a statistical program coordinator for the U.S. Postal Service, stressed that parental support is essential. One parent films all the games and most players are taken to games and practices by their parents, he said. In addition, about 35 volunteers assist the team, from coaching to selling soft drinks.
Harrison, a former football player at the District's Cardozo High School, has been with the same youngsters since they started as 75-pound tackles and tight ends. Reginald Baker Sr., whose 13-year-old son and namesake is a tight end, is an assistant coach.
"The coaches care about the boys as individuals as far as playing football and in everyday life," said Jonnell Alston, mother of Kevin Greenwell, 13, one of several four-year members of the team and an eighth-grader at Francis Scott Key Middle School. "It's helped a lot with his having recreation and discipline . . . " Alston said.
Kevin said he joined the team because "my uncle asked me to start" playing.
In its Nov. 11 county championship game, the team beat its closest contender, Wheaton, for the second time this season. That game was Wheaton's second loss in three years.
The top scorer in the 42-8 victory over Wheaton was Daron Wimbish, with three touchdowns. Louis Payne, Donte Smith and Michael McLean each scored one touchdown. Tyrone Newman, the team's kicker, made three extra point kicks, worth two points each.
The team is always willing to work with him, said Harrison: "They come to practice serious about what they do. They work hard and they listen to what the coaches have to say."
No one is cut from the team, said Harrison, who follows this creed: "If you practice, you play. If you don't practice, you don't play."
This contributes to a strong team spirit and keeps everyone -- including the good players and the marginal ones -- working hard to get a chance to compete, he said.
In a sense, the forthcoming competition signals the end of an era. The Pirates have reached the playing weight limit and will not qualify to compete in the league next year. Harrison and the team members, however, have promised to stay in touch.
"I feel great about the season," said wide receiver Michael McLean, "but I feel bad about leaving."