New Oakland Mills football coach Dick Hendershott introduced himself to his team shortly after 8 a.m. Saturday in the school cafeteria, signifying the first day of practice statewide and the beginning of a healing process at the Columbia school. The 52 players then took the field for the first time since Nov. 12, 2003, the day before the team was disqualified from the 1A playoffs for using an ineligible player.
"What happened in the past stays in the past," Hendershott told the players at the beginning of a lengthy team meeting. "It was unfortunate what happened and that you had to suffer for it. That's the last I'm going to say about it."
Throughout the state, the first day of practice for the fall season is filled with optimism. Every team has the same record and a fresh desire to succeed. But at Oakland Mills, this day took on a larger meaning, according to the players -- many of whom arrived up to an hour early and waited outside the locked school doors.
"Any time people read something about Oakland Mills or heard something about us, it was negative, and the players on this team had nothing to do with what happened," said junior safety Preston Paul. "They said something happened, and they took away our season, and we lost our coach. This is a chance to show people Oakland Mills is still a great team and for us to start over."
Hendershott, also the school's new athletic director, was hired last month and has not had time to meet many players or their parents. "Everything is new," he said. "They are learning about me, and I'm trying to get to know them."
A lot has changed since the Scorpions last met as a team, when charges of a grade change and an ineligible football player emerged, ending the team's season and prompting an investigation of coaches and other school employees. The Board of Education last week rejected a recommendation that former coach and athletic director Ken Hovet be fired in connection with the incident. Hovet was exonerated and offered his old jobs, but he and new Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin felt it was in everyone's best interest to transfer the social studies teacher to River Hill.
Hovet will be on a different field after school this season. He and some of Oakland Mills's former assistant football coaches will be assistant coaches at Magruder High in Montgomery County. And Hovet has accepted the positions of athletic director, football coach and social studies teacher at Marriott's Ridge, which will be Howard County's 12th high school when it opens in 2005.
At Oakland Mills, during Saturday's team meeting in the cafeteria, Hendershott began to put his own stamp on the team.
He required players to bring notebook and pencils to practice because he feels taking notes helps players learn what they are taught on the field.
He changed the offense to a wing-T formation and introduced a new language of play-calling -- and that was just in the first hour. The wing-T is a more run-oriented offense than that directed by Hovet, who stressed throwing the ball.
Hendershott emphasized team chemistry, urging players to bring lunch with them to practice and eat together between morning and afternoon sessions. Under Hovet, players were urged to go home and rest between practice sessions.
"In the first week or so, things are going to take longer because we're doing everything for the first time, but once we get it down, it will speed things up," said Hendershott, who spent the past six seasons as head coach at Holland Patent High in central New York.
"He pretty much changed everything we were used to, even the offense we ran," senior running back Kelly Wilson said. "I may not like all the changes, but if it helps us win games, then it will all be worth it because what happens on the field is what really counts. I don't want to think about what would happen if we don't get off to a good start because we might ask him to change some things, but right now I think he knows what he's talking about."
After more than two hours of lectures about team rules and offensive strategy, the Scorpions headed outside. Hendershott kept the 1 hour 15 minute outside session simple. He introduced a new stretching routine and worked on running techniques, showing players how to maximize each stride in the 40-yard dash. The players worked out in their own practice clothes because construction in the locker room prevented Hendershott from accessing the equipment room for uniforms and helmets.
Several parents lingered in the hallways as Hendershott addressed the team in the cafeteria, and they later watched practice from the parking lot. They said they weren't worried about how many games the Scorpions would win this season. They just wanted their sons back on the field.
"I think everyone has to give [Coach Hendershott] a fair chance and go in there with a good and positive attitude because it's going to take time for everyone to adjust to how he runs things," said Maria Cole, mother of junior twins Eric and Nathan. "The kids have really been through a lot since last year, and now with a new coach, only time will tell."
Day One of the Hendershott era ended shortly after noon, just before a light rain began to fall. But inclement weather and a flood watch mattered little as players headed home, most feeling better days were ahead.
"For the past few months, I know all a lot of us have been thinking that we would've won the state title if the chance wouldn't have been taken from us," senior wide receiver Kevin Beaman said. "I know I've been waiting to get back onto the football field for a long time, and it's finally here."
And now, he said, the Scorpions were ready to focus on football.
"I didn't know what to expect when I got there," Beaman said. "But when practice was just about over, I looked at who we had out there and saw we had a lot of good players out here. And there's no reason why we can't go out there and get to the championship game because we've already been through so much as a team already."