For high school football players, November can be the cruelest month. It also can be the coolest. Prince George's County offered examples last season from both ends of the spectrum.
When the season ended Thanksgiving weekend, Friendly's players danced off of the field at the University of Maryland's Byrd Stadium, holding aloft the Maryland 3A championship trophy. There was celebration, music and bliss that came when the team concept came together in a commanding performance.
For Suitland and Forestville, there were pain and tears. Players trudged off after agonizing defeats in the Maryland 4A and 1A finals, respectively. Fairmont Heights suffered a similarly tough loss in the first round of the 2A playoffs. Some players cried on the field, others held it in until they reached the locker room. No one wanted to watch their victorious opponents celebrate.
Last November is in the books.
This November awaits.
On Aug. 14, public school teams across the state began practicing. After grueling two-a-day practices and scrimmages that did not count in the standings, the games will mean something this weekend.
Although Friendly's championship was the first for a Prince George's team since DuVal in 1988, a county team winning another championship this season is not far-fetched. Suitland and Friendly are regarded as among the best teams in the Washington area.
So is Northwestern, which went 10-2 last season and lost to Suitland in the state semifinals. Fairmont Heights also could be in the playoff hunt. And Forestville, providing it can handle a schedule of schools with larger enrollments, could make another run at the 1A title.
However, the teams that advanced so far last season may face the biggest challenge. They had a taste of the highest levels of success and have an idea of what it takes to reach those heights. But last year's seniors have graduated and new leaders must be found. And each team can be sure that they are probably the biggest game on their opponents' schedule.
It is a challenge the coaches, and players, relish.
Friendly: Looking to Repeat
The challenge might be greatest for Friendly, the one county team that won its last playoff game. While Suitland and Forestville left Byrd Stadium dejected, Friendly's players were rejoicing the school's fourth state title, the first since 1983. But that was with a senior-dominated team, led by standouts Leon Joe, Keith Ferguson and Bobby Lane.
This season's team has only two returning starters--offensive linemen Tiant Thomas and Stephen Posey. Most of the team's key players, including quarterback Moriah Anderson, were on the junior varsity last season. Because of that, Coach George Earley said he does not draw comparisons between last season and this upcoming season.
"That was last year--we enjoyed and it was great. But it's over," Earley said. "As a coach, you have to put it aside. I'll always remember it, but that's what it is, a memory.
"This year, we have a lot of young men who don't have experience. That team was a veteran team. They knew each other. We've got guys who really don't know each other. They're talented, but it's different. We have a lot of work cut out for us, but it's all right."
Suitland: One Step Left
Walk out the back door to the Suitland gym, hang a quick right and look into the football coaches' office, affectionately known as "The Dungeon." In the back corner, a hole in the ceiling allows water from the day's rain to drip steadily into a metal trash can, giving the place what Coach Nick Lynch calls a "tropical flow."
On a table just inside the door are a few of the trophies the Rams have won during the past two seasons, including those marking their Prince George's 4A league championships. A plaque honoring the team as the Maryland 4A finalist last season also rests on the table.
Not that Lynch or Suitland need reminders of how close they have come to winning a state championship.
The memories. Two seasons ago, Suitland was undefeated until it lost in the state championship game to Seneca Valley, 33-13. Last season, Suitland held an advantage in play yet lost, 7-6, when it surrendered an interception return for a touchdown and failed to convert the extra-point kick following its touchdown.
"I can't go back and say I wish I had done something differently," Lynch said. "We did everything we possibly could. It motivates me that much more because it is something we didn't do right to get over that hump."
Getting over the hump will not be easy. Standouts such as quarterback Isiah Long, All-Met running back Germaine Bennett and defensive end Maurice McKinney were among the 22 seniors on last season's team. They were mainstays as Suitland went 31-5 the past three seasons.
Now it is other players' turn. Junior Ronitto Rogers or 5-foot-6, 130-pound sophomore Duane Smith will start at quarterback. Juniors Kenyon McAfee and Victor Champion are among the team's top receivers. Other players must also step up. Among the most experienced are senior tight end Anthony Moten and senior Sidney Baskins, a two-year starter at defensive end who has moved to linebacker this season.
Baskins admitted getting motivated at this time of the season is difficult, especially after reaching the state final the past two seasons. No Prince George's team ever has appeared in the state final in three consecutive seasons.
"Some kids feel it is going to be easy to get back there, but the veterans know it takes a lot of hard work," Baskins said. "We are going to have to work even harder to get back.
"The seniors know what it takes," Baskins said.
Fairmont Heights Pushes On
For Fairmont Heights, forgetting last season will be difficult for the players who return this season. The Hornets lost in the first round of the Maryland 2A playoffs to Middletown, 9-7. But even the close margin does not indicate how close Fairmont Heights came to winning; the Hornets lost on a field goal with 10 seconds remaining after a 15-yard penalty on assistant coach David Sharpless for not leaving the field quickly enough following a timeout.
After the game, Fairmont Heights's players refused to enter the locker room for 30 minutes, standing outside instead in disbelief that their season was over.
However, few key players return from that team. Newcomers must fill several voids, particularly at the offensive skill positions.
"We have maybe four seniors who saw significant playing time last year," senior linebacker Jamal Vest said. "Filling the voids we have, that's the only thing we are trying to do. Last year, everybody had been there two or three years and we were trying to fill maybe five spots. This year, we're trying to fill 10 or 15 spots."
After a scrimmage last week, Coach Ralph Paden said he liked his team's talent and potential.
"Last year . . . put pressure on these guys to want to equal [the playoff berth]," Paden said. "It makes them try harder. They know the tradition is that we win."
Forestville Earns Due
It took seven months for Forestville Coach Michael Mayo to watch the videotape of the Knights' 15-12 loss to Oakland Mills in the Maryland 1A championship game last season.
Forestville had a talented group of seniors, the core of a team that won a total of just four games in 1995 and 1996, then went 8-3 in 1997 and 10-3 in '98. Last season's playoff run included a stunning come-from-behind victory at Allegany and a resounding victory at defending state champion Hereford.
Then came the championship game. The Knights led 12-0 in the fourth quarter, only to lose the lead and get stopped at the goal line with three minutes remaining. After such an emotional playoff run, Forestville's players were in tears after the final gun sounded. But the hurt did not last long for the team's many seniors, Mayo said.
Mayo said most got over the defeat within a week. The coach, however, needed a little longer.
"I had a nice group of kids that had been with me for quite a while. I wish they could have gone out winning it," Mayo said. "But I don't think they think about it as much as I do. . . . A week after the game, they were like, 'Oh well, we had our shot.' The kids move on, but some coaches never get to that point and once they get there, some don't get back to that point."
But having reached the state final for the second time in school history (the Knights also lost in 1988), Forestville has a new outlook this season.
For starters, Mayo thinks his team has earned respect over the past two seasons. "It means something to beat us now."
One thing that has not changed is the Knights' offensive line. All five starters return, led by senior guard Forris Pittman. While the seniors got over the loss quickly, Pittman said he thinks about the game nearly every day. Whether he is watching a tape of the game at home or thinking about it when getting dressed for practice, the thoughts linger.
"A lot of my friends were on last year's team," Pittman said. "I'm just looking forward to this year. We've got plans to go back and win it this year."
Message to Remember
As the new season dawns, few expect an easy path to the playoffs. But for now, everyone is on equal ground. Every team is 0-0. Being a favorite doesn't matter. Getting the job done is what counts. Finding extra motivation is not a problem.
In Lynch's case, he saved a message on his answering machine, left over the summer by Long before the quarterback departed for Waynesboro (Pa.) College. Lynch said he pushes the play button and listens to it every day, often in the morning before leaving for school.
"At the end, he said he was not going to say good luck because luck is for people who are not prepared," Lynch said. "He said, 'I know you're going to prepare the team and have them ready.' "
Come this weekend, we'll find out.
CAPTION: Fairmont Heights Coach Ralph Paden, who guided team to playoffs last year, picks up where he left off.
CAPTION: Friendly, celebrating during last season's 3A state title win against Eastern, became the first county team to win a state crown since 1988. But the Patriots may be hard-pressed to duplicate the feat because just two starters return.
CAPTION: Forestville's Derrell Parker heads upfield.
CAPTION: Suitland's Nick Lynch must replace 22 seniors.
CAPTION: Forestville Coach Michael Mayo monitors team.
CAPTION: Forestville quarterback Pierre Hawkins preps for season with practice throw.