When talking about the best high school football teams in the Washington area, it does not take long before the conversation turns to DeMatha. The Catholic school in Hyattsville annually produces some of the region's top players and can be found at or near the top of The Post's rankings.
Evidence of the program's status: The Stags had 11 players sign with Division I schools last season and, since 1991, 121 players from DeMatha have received scholarship packages. Last year's team finished 12-0 and No. 2 in The Post's rankings of teams in the Washington area (behind only Seneca Valley, which also went undefeated); DeMatha also was ranked No. 13 in the nation by USA Today.
So how does DeMatha do it?
Coach Bill McGregor said there are two keys to the Stags' success. The first is playing as a team, with players interested in accomplishing a common goal and not concerned with individual performances. The second, and perhaps the most difficult to achieve, is toughness.
"Every year, the biggest thing is getting them to buy into being a team," McGregor said. " 'Can you count on me? Can you count on me to do the right thing?' That's the reason we hold hands in the huddle. It's a symbol of the kids counting on each other, knowing their assignments and their responsibilities. There is nothing magical about being a good football team. But you have to be a team first."
Staying healthy is crucial. At a practice last week, the Stags had eight starters on the sideline with injuries, prompting McGregor and trainer Wendy Norris to lecture the team about the difference between injury and soreness.
"Good football players are always physical and they are mentally tough and physically tough," McGregor said. "You have to be hard. If you are soft, you are not going to be a good football team or a good football player. Truthfully, if you are soft, physically or mentally, you should be playing another sport."
In order to prepare the team, McGregor and his staff often play mind games to try to make their players mentally tougher.
"They weed out the players who want to be here and want to be football players," senior linebacker Mikal Baaqee said. "Anybody can put the pads on, but [the coaches] are hard-nosed and they get the best out of you.
"They are so demanding, it makes you want to quit. But it brings out the best in you."
Said senior defensive end Jason Lallis, who is playing with a blue cast protecting his broken left thumb: "We probably have the best coaches in the area. And they push us to the fullest. And the players have the right attitude and mind-set to get things done."
And that attitude is passed on from the veterans to the younger players.
"Guys that come here know about the great tradition and want certain things," Baaqee said. "When a guy comes to DeMatha, he knows what he is in for."
CAPTION: DeMatha Coach Bill McGregor led last year's team to a 12-0 record and a No. 2 ranking. Although 11 players signed with Division I schools, the Stags are expected to remain formidable this season.