The difference between quarterbacking a 2-8 team and quarterbacking a 6-2 team is plenty evident to Stonewall Jackson junior Ricky Milbourne. And he has at least 10 teammates who can vouch for his sentiments.
"There's a difference in the huddle this year," Milbourne said Friday night after a 31-20 home win over Osbourn Park. "When I'm in the huddle, everybody's upbeat, they're ready to go, they're running to the ball [for the snap]. Last year we were down and we just didn't have any confidence in ourselves."
Milbourne is a prime example of the Raiders' maturation from a team that led in six games last year but won only two to a team that's on the verge of clinching its first playoff berth since 1996.
Thrust into a starting role as a sophomore in 2003, Milbourne threw seven interceptions in his first five outings but settled down as the season progressed, even though the Raiders dropped their last five games.
This season the 5-foot-8, 181-pound Milbourne has completed 45 of 90 passes for 979 yards -- that's 21.8 yards per completion -- with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. He did not play in a loss to Potomac because of a concussion he suffered the week before.
"He's above and beyond what we thought he would be," second-year Stonewall coach Loren Johnson said. "We knew he'd be good, but we didn't think he'd be this good this year."
Johnson said Milbourne has a tendency to overthrow receivers early in games, belying his usual accuracy. But he is adept at making adjustments at the line of scrimmage, an attribute that Gar-Field Coach Joe Mangano believes makes Milbourne the best quarterback in the area.
Mangano was offensive coordinator at Stonewall last season. This fall, he could only wince as Milbourne threw for a career-high 236 yards and three touchdowns to different receivers against Gar-Field.
"Early [last season], Loren and I said we didn't want to put him in any situations where he felt he had to win the game for us, so we ran the ball a lot," Mangano said. "He really did develop into a pretty fine quarterback as a sophomore. . . .[This season] we tried to pressure Ricky and he picked us apart for two touchdowns and put us back in a zone.
"One thing outside observers don't see is he does a lot of checks on the line of scrimmage and audibles and does a lot of things most high school quarterbacks can't do mentally."
The ability to adjust on the fly might explain why the Raiders have no glaring go-to receiver. Senior Chris Lancaster has 13 catches. Freshman Ryan Williams has nine. Senior Josh Baird has eight. Senior P.J. Taylor has six. Five other players also have at least one reception each.
Milbourne seems to get better as the game goes along. In the fourth quarter alone, he threw for 143 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-7 win over Woodbridge. The Raiders have scored 128 of their 197 points after halftime.
"Just confidence," Milbourne said in regard to his improved play. "That's all it is. I could have done it last year, but I didn't have the confidence in myself. And I don't think my teammates had that confidence in me . . . but now they're looking to me to make big plays. . . . It's pressure, but it's good pressure. I like it."
Milbourne recalls the Raiders being booed at a pep rally last season. Those boos have long since turned to cheers. Their only losses have been in the season opener to No. 18 Hylton and to Potomac (6-2), a setback Stonewall will have the chance to avenge in the regular season finale Nov. 12, a game that might determine the Cedar Run District championship.
"He puts guys in the best situation to win," Johnson said. "He doesn't lose games for us, he wins games for us."