Monday's sweltering heat and humidity did little to slow an annual rite of late summer: the return of high school football. Specifically, it was the return of two-a-days, when coaches double up on their practice sessions to better gauge their talent for the upcoming season.

For county powers Suitland (4A) and Potomac (2A), Monday's return to practice also meant the beginning of their defenses of state championships.

The scene at both schools included intense shoulder-pad collisions of players hitting equipment and high-octave demands from coaches. But both programs know now what winter awards can await for those who put in the time in the hot haze of August.

At Suitland, Looking for Leaders

Coach Nick Lynch starts the Rams' first practice at 7 a.m. but the early hour provides no relief from the sun. He drills his new team through exercises and fundamentals, and as the practice wears on, players begin to show signs of fatigue. Some pull themselves to the side to become ill. A few even turn in their pads, ending their season before it starts. On a state championship team, the demands can be daunting.

Suitland finished 13-1 en route to its first title last season. Lynch expects to have eight starters back this season -- four on offense, four on defense -- and wants his upperclassmen to take leadership roles.

"Football is a hard sport," Lynch said. "With the freshmen we have to be a little lenient, but if you're a varsity player wearing a black jersey, you better bring it. I want my seniors to be leaders and not just talk the talk but lead by example."

One of those seniors is All-Met linebacker Navorro Bowman, one of the top college recruits on the East Coast (he has yet to choose his school). Bowman, who also rushed for more than 1,200 yards (including 148 in the 14-7 victory over Damascus for the 4A title), will be expected to lead a younger team that is eager to defend their title.

"I think we have a chance to defend our title," Bowman said. "Me and all the other seniors have to lead by example for the younger guys. I love the competition so I'm not going to back down."

Lynch demands that all of his players push themselves as hard as they can -- including the stars.

"Even with Navorro I know what I'm going to get with him, but I still want him to push himself," Lynch said.

Lynch is keenly aware that last season's 13 wins and title trophy mean nothing to this season.

"Last year is last year. We've got a target on our back this year and everyone is aiming for us," Lynch said. "I like that we have a target on our back. It motivates me, the other coaches and the kids."

Potomac Picks Up Where It Left Off

A few miles away, Potomac Coach Eric Knight was going through much the same routine as Lynch: Trying not to think too hard about the state title won, and instead trying to get a feel for what he has on this season's roster.

"The first day of practice is all about eyeballing newcomers, looking at the guys we have coming back and seeing what kind of shape they're in," Knight said.

The Wolverines (14-0 last season) won't lack for vocal leadership on either side of the ball with the return of senior quarterback James Nickens and senior linebacker Adrian McLeod. Nickens took charge of offensive drills, lofting spiral after spiral to new receivers practicing their routes, demanding precision from his young wideouts.

If a receiver didn't run fast enough, if the wrong hand was used on a one-hand catch drill or if a receiver just flat-out missed the ball, Nickens was on them. Most errors by a Wolverine receiver resulted in Nickens demanding 20 or more push-ups.

"We need to set the tone for the young guys and the returning players," Nickens said. "We have to let them know what we expect."

McLeod, who has been playing on Potomac's varsity team since his freshman year, was heard throughout practice giving encouragement to his teammates but also exuding confidence in his own ability. Despite going through his first practice as a defending state champion, McLeod sounded more like a guy looking for respect than one who hoisted a title trophy in December.

"I still feel like we're underdogs," McLeod said, when asked about the swagger that comes with winning a state championship. "I just can't wait to hit somebody."

Nickens said: "It just feels like another practice to me. It's like we never stopped playing."

On their first day of practice Monday, Tyrone Washington, above, and his Suitland teammates get ready to defend the Maryland 4A state title they won last year, the first state title in school history.Senior Navorro Bowman, left, readies for a handoff from James Posey on Monday. Bowman, one of the top recruits on the East Coast, helped Suitland win a Maryland 4A state title last year.