The yellow school buses carrying the Eleanor Roosevelt football team pulled up to Byrd Stadium at the University of Maryland at 5:30 on Friday afternoon, 90 minutes before the kickoff of the Maryland 4A championship game.
Police cars with flashing lights accompanied the buses as they made their way from Greenbelt to College Park, the trip that the Raiders dreamed about in 1998 but never got to make.
"The whole thing just felt good," said senior Delano Dryden, a defensive tackle and one of the team captains. "It felt like we were important, like we were driving to accomplish something that had not been done in Roosevelt history. It was a good feeling."
But it didn't compare with the feeling following the game, a 41-13 victory over Gaithersburg that gave Roosevelt its first state championship. The players dumped water on Coach Rick Houchens and his assistants--a move that seemed redundant, considering that the game was played in a steady, heavy rain--and then slid around the wet and muddy turf following the final whistle.
"It was cold, and it was rainy, but it proved to be the perfect setting," Dryden said. "We blocked the rain out. We came to play. It's all about blocking, tackling and executing, and that's what we did."
No. 5 Roosevelt finished the season with a 12-1 record, its lone loss coming at the hands of Suitland, 23-7, on Oct. 9. The Raiders entered that game with a 5-0 record and had won the five games by a combined score of 233-36. The loss to the Rams, the eventual county 4A champion, shook up the Raiders and forced them to refocus for the second half of the season.
Then, in the first round of the 4A playoffs, Roosevelt won a rematch with Suitland, 19-13, its first win over the Rams since 1995.
"When we played Suitland the second time, in the playoffs, I really felt like that propelled us into the state championship," Houchens said. "The way we played, and the physical way we played, was a tribute to our kids. I knew that we had state championship-caliber kids. I think that the first loss to Suitland was a wake-up call to our kids, and it made them realize that hey, we're going to lose this if we don't step up and play hard."
The Raiders desperately wanted to avoid a repeat of the 1998 season, when they finished 7-3 and missed making the playoffs by less than one power point. Two games from that season stood out in the players' minds--a 6-0 loss to Suitland and a 16-14 loss to Northwestern--because a win in either game would have meant a trip to the playoffs. That motivated the Raiders throughout this season.
Friday's win over No. 9 Gaithersburg was the happy ending the Roosevelt players had dreamed of. For some players, such as juniors Edwin Rios and Ricky Walston, it sparked talks of making a repeat trip to Byrd Stadium--a reasonable goal, considering the Raiders have key players returning from their high-powered offense and underrated defense as well as players from a 9-0 junior varsity team.
But for others, such as Dryden, it was a nice way to end a high school career.
"I picked up a little bit of grass off the field," Dryden said. "I'll just keep it, just as a reminder that I got to play on that field. I had so much fun playing with everybody, and hopefully Roosevelt will make it back next year."
CAPTION: Eleanor Roosevelt's Wendell Williams splashes past Gaithersburg's Steve Boers for a big gain in the Raiders' 41-13 victory in the Maryland 4A state title game at Maryland's Byrd Stadium.