With six-time defending Virginia AAA Northwestern Region Division 6 champion Hylton among its members, the Cardinal District generally receives more preseason scrutiny than the neighboring Cedar Run. After all, everyone wants to know just how mighty the Bulldogs are likely to be, and whether any team is capable of challenging them.
But in terms of intrigue this fall, the Cedar Run hints at being the more interesting of the two leagues, a theory that will begin to play itself out when practice begins tomorrow for most area schools in preparation for their Sept. 10 season openers.
Osbourn Park, a two-time defending Division 6 region finalist, is 12-0 in Cedar Run District games the past two years. But the Yellow Jackets' margin of victory against Osbourn, Potomac and Stonewall Jackson narrowed from 20.2 points in 2002 to 11.8 last year. In addition, Osbourn Park graduated 10 first-team all-district players -- 13 counting three two-way standouts.
Meanwhile, the other Cedar Run teams all skewed younger last season. Osbourn is coming off its best record in six years. Stonewall Jackson returns almost its entire offense. Potomac narrowly missed out on a Division 5 region playoff berth in 2003.
"I think every coach would say, hey, it's anybody's ballgame to take," said Osbourn Coach Steve Schultze, who had 115 players show up for a preseason meeting. "I told my parents and kids [Thursday night], 'Be prepared for this year to be the most exciting year of your life.' "
Osbourn Park, on firm footing the past two years after eight straight losing seasons, is the favorite until otherwise notified. Four of its five losses the past two years have been to Hylton. Both setbacks to the Bulldogs last year were by a touchdown, and the Yellow Jackets led in the fourth quarter of both games. District opponents not only chased Osbourn Park, but also running back Devin Thompson, an All-Met sprinter last year as a sophomore.
After wrapping up its season at 5-5, Potomac had to wait a week last year to see if it would sneak into the playoffs (Hurricane Isabel extended the season by a week for some teams). As it turned out, the Panthers were edged out of that spot by North Stafford. As juniors, Michael Vann and Michael Plater were Potomac's leading receivers and second- and third-leading rushers.
Osbourn lost four games by 11 points or fewer last season and showed it can pull out the tight ones -- three wins were by three points and a fourth by nine points. Punter-kicker Jay Graham is the only returner to have earned first-team all-district status last year. He made seven field goals, including game-winners of 43 and 35 yards.
The offensive edge in the district might have to go to Stonewall, which returns 1,300-yard rusher Chris Garrett, a Division I recruit. In addition, four starting offensive linemen return, as does quarterback Ricky Milborne. The Raiders will have to shore up a defense that gave up three touchdowns or more in each of its final nine games.
As for the Cardinal, state semifinalist Hylton, vying for its fourth state title in seven years, will still be considered the front-runner despite seniors accounting for every defensive starting spot in 2003 and, on offense, 100 of 102 receptions. Quarterback Tristen Simmons, running back Courtney Anderson and linemen Ara Der-Boghossian and Tyrell Lynch were the only nonseniors who started in the 24-14 loss to eventual Division 6 champion Westfield in the state semifinals. That was the first home playoff loss in school history and a setback that knocked Hylton out of the No. 1 spot in The Post rankings.
Of course, the Bulldogs have handled heavy graduation losses before and bounced back as strong, if not stronger. And they certainly are adaptable -- 3,053 rushing yards and 499 passing yards in 2002; 1,992 yards rushing yards and 1,966 passing yards in 2003.
"C.D. Hylton is where the bar is, and every one of us in the district has to look at them as the bar, and that's where we need to be," first-year Gar-Field coach Joe Mangano said. "Until you knock off the champions, that's basically where the bar is."
Gar-Field has been Hylton's primary challenger, and the fact that the Indians have lost 13 straight to the Bulldogs says something about the one-sided nature of the district.
Mangano, a former assistant at W.T. Woodson, Lake Braddock and, most recently, Stonewall, took over the program from Jim Poythress, who moved on to Lake Braddock. Gar-Field went 22-11 under Poythress, with three playoff berths. Eight of the 11 losses were to Hylton.
Gar-Field returns no first-team all-district players, but Mangano is pleased to report that every offensive lineman can squat more than 400 pounds. Among that group is two-way standout Kevin Crawford, who has unofficially committed to the University of Virginia. The Indians' freshman and junior varsity teams were unbeaten last year.
No one can accuse Woodbridge of shying away from competition, despite a 20-40 record the past six years. Including scrimmages, the Vikings this season will face the 2000 state champion (Centreville), the 1998, '99 and 2002 state champion (Hylton) and the 2003 state champion (Westfield). That sort of preparation might be why Woodbridge has lodged impressive upsets the past two seasons -- over Hylton in 2002 and over Osbourn Park last year. But the Vikings have lost 12 straight to Gar-Field.
Entering its fourth varsity year, Forest Park is trying to gain footing in the Cardinal after going 8-22 its first three seasons. Both wins last year were in high-scoring games against Woodbridge.
Brentsville begins its second season in the Virginia AA Northwestern District. The teams the Tigers lost to last year went 42-14. Brentsville's 8-3 and 5-5 records the past two years are the program's first consecutive years without a losing mark since 1992-95.
Like Hylton, Manassas Park also reached the state playoffs last season, losing 24-7 to Essex in the Virginia A Division 2 semifinals. It was the Cougars' first state appearance since 1986 but the third straight playoff berth for the program, which returns quarterback-defensive back Zach Terrell, the Bull Run District offensive player of the year and the Region B defensive player of the year. But many of the players who helped key seven shutouts last season are gone. Manassas Park started practice last Monday in preparation for a Sept. 3 opener at William Monroe.
With no seniors, new programs Battlefield and Freedom will not field varsity teams this season, although Battlefield will play varsity games at second-year Loudoun County school Dominion on Sept. 3 and at home against Brentsville on Sept. 10. The Freedom-Battlefield game Nov. 12 game to close the season will be on a Friday night, unlike most junior varsity games.
Haymarket school Battlefield is coached by Mark Cox, former coach at Falls Church and W.T. Woodson. Woodbridge school Freedom is coached by former Hylton assistant John Brown. Next season, Battlefield will join the Cedar Run District and Freedom will play in the Cardinal.
Quantico last year made its second straight appearance in the Virginia Independent Schools Football Association Division I playoffs.