Zach Terrell knew there would be a lot of unproven players on the Manassas Park football team this fall, but the Cougars senior quarterback had no idea just how many until Monday morning, when he reported to the first practice.
Upon scanning the locker room, he had to wonder to himself, who the heck are these guys? In many cases, certainly not the players who helped Manassas Park reach the Virginia A Region B semifinals three years ago, the region final two years ago, or the state semifinals last year, the program's first state appearance since 1986.
"I thought about it, and I knew it was going to happen, but I didn't believe it until I saw it this morning," Terrell said Monday afternoon before the team's second practice of the day. "It was like, 'Wow, a whole bunch of new faces.' . . . I don't ever talk to [any] of these people. I don't know any of them, really."
The acquainting process began Monday for the Cougars, who open the season Sept. 3 at William Monroe in Stanardsville. Quantico and new school Battlefield also are practicing; other area schools begin Monday in preparation for their Sept. 10 openers.
Manassas Park, which went 17-64 from 1991 to 1998, is in a strange spot. The Cougars have gone 42-14 the past five years and are coming off the first unbeaten regular season in the 28-year history of the program, a run that helped land them in the top 20, a rarity for a Virginia A school.
But at least for now, expectations outside the program might be loftier than expectations inside the program, because the Cougars realize just how many holes there are to fill.
From what Coach Jeff Lloyd has heard, Manassas Park is the consensus favorite to repeat as Bull Run District champion, a distinction perhaps based more on recent reputation -- and the return of Terrell, the district offensive player of the year and region defensive player of the year -- than on deep evaluation.
"You always have high expectations, and a lot of preseason things are already . . . picking us in our district, and that's nice," said Lloyd, the All-Extra coach of the year in 2003. "But each year is a new year. We're going to be a very different looking team than what we have been."
The spread offense Manassas Park ran last fall likely will extend even further this season, to the point that wideouts A.C. Fitchett and Joe Greene might just line up underneath each set of bleachers, all the better to create more space for the slippery Terrell, who plans to commit unofficially to Division I-AA James Madison soon.
There is no Howard Mighty (Ferrum) or Sam Wright (Fork Union Military Academy) on the offensive line, and few linemen in camp boast that duo's bulky dimensions, let alone their skill. Nor is there an apparent breakaway running threat in the mold of Price Ward (941 yards in 2002) or Michael Roberts (1,431 yards last year).
"I think it's going to be more of a fight this year than it was last year," junior center Anthony VanKuren said.
It would have to be. Manassas Park shut out seven opponents last season and from the second game through the 11th game outscored the opposition 372-26, before losing to Essex in the state semifinals.
So the current Cougars are charged with fending off a menu of teams with scores to settle, and they must do so without such departed first-team all-district players as Roberts, Mighty, Wright, Larry Beaty, Ivan Fitchett and Reggie Rigaud.
In addition, two-year starting defensive end Andrew Holoman, a second-team all-district pick, informed Lloyd on the eve of the first practice that he was moving to Loudoun County. Other players Lloyd expected to see out for practice did not show Monday morning.
Senior A.C. Fitchett, a first-team all-district pick in 2003, said he will have to demonstrate the same kind of patience older Cougars showed him when he was one of the younger players in the program.
"Every time I fell, they picked me up; every time I was doing something wrong, they'd tell me what I was doing wrong," Fitchett said. "So basically that's what we have to do. If somebody messes up, we have to criticize them, but not to a certain point where they feel they don't want to play football any more."
Lloyd and his staff face a similar challenge.
"I preached to the kids [Monday] morning before we took the field that this program has a lot of recent history here, and it's up to you kids to either continue that or be the group that's remembered as letting that slide," he said. "The days of sneaking up on people are over, even though we may not on paper right now be as strong as people think we are. There's a lot of work to do."
quarterback Zach Terrell, above, is one of the few holdovers from last season's team, which went unbeaten during the regular season on the way to a berth in states. Left, wide receiver Joe Greene is set to be a part of the team's spread offense this season."I think it's going to be more of a fight this year," said Manassas Park junior center Anthony VanKuren.