In the year and half since Suitland senior Deyon Williams transferred from Bishop McNamara, the Rams have become accustomed to looking to him not only for big points, but also for contagious energy and leadership.
So when Williams, last season's Maryland 4A/3A indoor champion in the 55-meter hurdles, was disqualified for a false start in the hurdles final at this year's state meet, the team and the hostile crowd sensed a crisis. Fortunately for Suitland, two other McNamara transfers, seniors Robert Duru and Darnell Moore, met the challenge. Moore placed second in the hurdles, Duru won the subsequent 55-meter dash, and the Rams won their first indoor title since 1982.
"When Deyon was [disqualified], Darnell and I looked at each other like, 'Oh, no,' but we knew it was up to us to do it," Duru said. "The crowd actually helped us, because they were cheering against us, saying, 'Now [Suitland]'s going to lose,' but we rise when people are against us."
That resilience is characteristic of a team closely united despite being together just two years. Going into the indoor season, Suitland had to fill the void left by graduated two-time All-Met Tim Riley, the county and 4A/3A state champion in the indoor 800 and the county champion in the 300 hurdles and 800 during the outdoor season.
The Rams, however, enter this outdoor season as the team to beat, thanks to the trio of transfers plus the emergence of freshman Jameel Lane, the 55 dash runner-up during the winter, and junior Yaphet Cross, the runner-up in the 800.
"We went from last year being the hunters to this year being the hunted," said Duru, who will run for Georgetown next year. "Myself, Yaphet, Darnell, Deyon -- we trained hard in the offseason because we knew we'd have some shoes to fill without [Riley]. When Deyon went out, we stepped up. It was the same thing as with Tim [graduating].
"There are guys on our team waiting for opportunities, and more often than not, they can meet the challenge."
The challenge often starts at practice under the ever-intense vigilance of Coach Troy Shockley, who never seems to miss a detail as he strides between drills for jumping, baton exchanges and block work.
"The sign of a good team is whether they take on the coach's personality, and this team has the ability to be intense and focused when they need to be focused," Shockley said. "One thing that's interesting about this group of kids is the camaraderie, which you don't find in a lot of programs with so many good athletes."
For Williams and Moore, off-track friendship tempers fierce on-track competitiveness.
"He's my biggest competitor," Moore said. "Even though it's practice, we're out here going full-blast. We talk every day, but on the track, we don't talk at all."
Moore said Williams was his mentor in the hurdles, just as he was the one to take Williams under his wing when Williams arrived at the school. Although Williams had run for the New Wave Track Club, which trained at Suitland, he said he transferred mainly to get the feel of a big school. That will come in handy next year, when Williams, an All-Met wide receiver, joins the University of Virginia football team.
For now, he is focused on defending his 4A state title in the 300 hurdles and improving his runner-up finishes in the 110 hurdles and long jump. And he can focus solely on track, unlike the indoor season, when he split time between basketball and track -- even playing a game against High Point the night before the state meet.
"I'm coming back out with a vengeance," said Williams, who was also fourth last year in the high jump. "I'm ready for states right now, that's how hungry I am. People say I'm not that good anymore in the hurdles because I was second in the region [to eventual state champion Ronnie Beard of Frederick], but I'm a full-time track athlete now. I could see myself scoring 40 points, and if I can see myself doing it, I can do it."