Southern's football players placed a bright yellow construction helmet adorned with their team logo behind one of the goalposts as soon as they took the field to open the season against High Point on Friday night in Beltsville.
"That's our hard hat, and we bring it because it's time for us to go to work," senior running back Bobby Atwell said. "That helmet is what we're all about: going out there and getting the job done."
For two years, the helmet had been the first item Southern carried into the stadium and the last to leave. The tradition continued in the 35-18 victory last week.
The Bulldogs credit a blue-collar work ethic as the chief reason they have transformed a once-struggling football program into one of the best in the county. Southern is one of just three county schools -- along with Broadneck and Old Mill -- to qualify for the playoffs in both of the past two seasons, a significant accomplishment for a squad that went 30-49 from 1994 to 2001.
"The biggest difference between then and now is that before, our goal was just to make the playoffs," Coach Russ Meyers said. "Now, we expect to be in the playoffs every year."
So this year, Southern players have set the bar higher than just a school-record third consecutive playoff appearance: They want to win the county title and demonstrate that the county's smallest public school can dominate a league that includes several schools with twice the enrollment.
"Teams in this county think 'Southern' and think 'small 2A school' and that we aren't that good," senior running back E.J. Estep said. "We want to show that even though we may be a small school, we're a good team. The only way to get that respect is by winning a county title. Then everyone has to give us the credit we deserve. So all we need to do is go out there and win."
That's exactly what Southern did against High Point, a Class 4A Prince George's County school that boasts one of the largest enrollments in Maryland. The Bulldogs' run-oriented offense powered through the Eagles, as Atwell scored on a 40-yard run and Estep added an 18-yard run in the first three minutes 31 seconds of the game to grab the lead for good.
The Bulldogs' commitment to the running game did not end until the final whistle. Southern junior quarterback Jimmy Smith threw just two passes, completing both -- including a 25-yard touchdown toss to junior Ryan Sullivan -- as running backs Atwell (18 carries, game-high 181 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Estep (9 carries, 71 yards, 1 touchdown) took advantage of stellar play by the offensive line to move the ball down the field.
"That's our game: We're going to run the football at you," Meyers said. "And it's also no secret that Bobby's our best player and he's the one we're counting on to lead us."
Atwell made his presence felt all over the field. Defensively, the safety made an interception to stop a High Point drive on Southern's 35-yard line, with his team leading 28-18 with 5:13 remaining.
Atwell put the game away with his play on special teams.
He was set to punt with his team facing a fourth-and-10 from the High Point 40-yard line but received a bad snap. With High Point's defenders closing in, Atwell cut to his right and sprinted down the sideline and, after breaking a tackle, dove past the first-down marker for a 14-yard gain.
Seven plays later, Smith scored on a one-yard sneak to cap the victory.
"If I don't make that, then [High Point] has the ball and the momentum, and we needed that play to win," Atwell said. "I knew I had to make it."
Southern players gathered in the end zone at the end of the game, forming a circle and holding hands, knowing they had taken the first step in a three-month journey they hope will end in M&T Bank Stadium, playing for the 2A state title. In unison, the players chanted "one heart, one soul, one team," each time taking a step closer until they were huddled together.
"We expected to come out here and win, and we didn't expect it to be this close," Estep said. "But we came out here and got the job done, and now it's on to our next game. We have [league opponent] Northeast [tomorrow] and we'll be there and go to work again."
And they'll take their construction helmet with them.