Hylton showed vulnerability last fall by losing two regular season games -- equaling the number of regular season losses from the previous six years combined -- and tumbling out of the The Post's Top 20 for the first time in years.
More out of character was the fact that the Bulldogs were bitten by friction issues that normally befall lesser teams. That's why "teamwork" and "leadership" have been buzzwords in the Hylton camp this month.
"We saw [last season] how when you start working against one another or fighting from within, it doesn't work that way," Bulldogs Coach Lou Sorrentino said. "I'm not sure how much of that was panic setting in against a good opponent like Robinson [a 41-0 loss in the state semifinals] or us not doing a good job in developing leaders. It's certainly something we're trying to emphasize, and I think the kids have responded to it."
Part of the process has been more team-building activities, during which Sorrentino will ask certain questions to spur a discussion: The biggest way I can hurt this team is (blank). The best way to show my commitment to this team is (blank). And so on.
"Looking back last year from a staff or coach's point of view, I didn't do enough to enhance our guys that might have been leaders," Sorrentino said.
Because of injuries and other factors, two dozen different players started on defense in 2004, and sometimes the turnover showed. Opponents burned the Bulldogs for 10 touchdowns of 52 yards or more.
Several key defensive contributors are back, most notably the linebackers, led by senior Aaron Adusei and junior Tabian Johnson, the top two tacklers in 2004. Junior defensive back Rondell Kelley picked off passes in each of the two region playoff games.
On offense, leading rushers Courtney Anderson (1,109 yards) and Johnson (439) head a deep backfield and will toil behind a sizable line, a unit that should ably protect first-year quarterback Darius Reynolds, a junior. Senior Marshall Dill is the top returning receiver in the district.
Among other Bulldogs who could come up big: junior lineman William Alvarez (6-5, 305) and senior punter Brian Citizen.
Perhaps no statistic attests to Hylton's long-time excellence more than the fact that in winning the past seven region titles, the Bulldogs have bested six schools in the championships.
"I've developed a newfound respect for teams that are successful year in and year out," said Sorrentino, who took his last six Culpeper teams to the playoffs and his first three at Hylton. "That's hard. . . . The same things that are difficult for other people are difficult for us, too."
Woodbridge beat the Bulldogs for the second time in three seasons last year but then lost to Hylton in the region semifinals, the Vikings' first playoff appearance since 1997.
The number of returning starters do not tell the whole story for Woodbridge, which went from 0-6 in the district in 2003 to a postseason berth in 2004. True, eight starters are back on offense, including a stacked offensive line led by junior Justin Hairston. But 2,400 yards rushed out the door when Andre Bratton and Derrick Holt graduated. The projected top back this season is a freshman, DeAntwan Williams.
And although the defense lost 10 of 11 starters, Coach Keith King is encouraged by the players stepping into those many vacancies.
"Some say this is a rebuilding year," King said, dismissing that notion. "We started rebuilding three years ago. Once you build it, you don't want to start over and rebuild every three years. We hope to keep the progress going, and we feel this team is very capable of doing that."
The Vikings will play six home games this season. They swept Gar-Field last year after losing 12 straight in that series.
Beating Hylton is not always a springboard to greater things. Potomac, back in the Cardinal District after being a founding member of the Cedar Run, knocked off the Bulldogs last year but closed the season with three consecutive losses, including setbacks to Osbourn Park and Stonewall, teams the Panthers had beaten handily weeks before.
Potomac led in four of its five losses and was tied in the fourth quarter of the other.
"We've tried to set the tone with the players that last year we had an opportunity to get in the playoffs and played a really good team in the playoffs [eventual Division 5 state runner-up North Stafford] and gave up the loss there in the last minute," said first-year Potomac coach Tony Lilly, an assistant last season to Ben Stutler, now the activities director at Battlefield. "They kind of got a taste of it and our goal [now] is to come to a different level."
No district team returns an offensive combination as effective as junior Deante Steele and senior Vaughn Walker, who teamed for 26 touchdowns last season. Senior Chad Davis is perhaps the most accomplished two-way lineman in the district, having earned all-region distinction on each side of the ball.
Lilly's son Ryan played tight end on the 2002 Hylton state championship team. Potomac is 14-2 the past three years when scoring 14 or more points.
After a one-step-back season in which it missed the playoffs for just the fourth time in 11 years and the first time since 2000, Gar-Field will trot out a far more experienced team -- nine sophomores started in the finale last year -- and a simplified offense.
Two key changes: Plays will no longer be signaled in, which was a source of drive-killing penalties in 2004. And because of changes in the passing game, junior quarterback Savion Frazier should have easier reads than he had a year ago.
Senior Mike King, the team leader and a former ball boy in the program, should have help in the running game. In fact, King sat out the first scrimmage against T.C. Williams with a groin injury, and even without him the Indians carried 45 times for 285 yards, led by junior Maurice Perry.
"You could count on one hand all the mental errors we made," second-year coach Joe Mangano said, "compared to last year's [first] scrimmage when we had quite a few mental mistakes on every given play."
Gar-Field, which gave up 13.6 points per game the last five outings of 2004, also brings back senior kicker John Painter, who tied for the Washington-area lead last season with nine field goals. That speaks not only to his accuracy, but to the Indians' inability to find the end zone. They scored 10 or fewer points seven times, and managed only 12 in the last five games combined.
Gar-Field's losing streak in the Hylton series grew to 15, and 12- and seven-game winning streaks against Woodbridge and Forest Park, respectively, ended.
Forest Park Bruins
When Forest Park began varsity play in 2001, it faced a more difficult challenge than most rookie teams. Their first four seasons, the Bruins had to face Hylton and Gar-Field, among others, twice per year.
The Bruins are 0-8 against Hylton, having been outscored, 261-34. They dropped the first seven games against Gar-Field.
"Deep down, I really believe that that kind of slowed down our progress a little bit," Forest Park Coach Jerry Williams said. "When we first started, I was in favor of [that scheduling] and thought it would make us tougher and all that. To be honest with you, that was ignorance on my part.
"But if anybody wants to use that as an excuse [now], that excuse is no longer there."
The Bruins bring back the county's leading rusher from last season, senior Ryan Lee, who racked up 1,647 yards, and they are encouraged by additional backfield members, as well. That's a good thing, considering Lee will play more linebacker this season than last.
Lee's increased defensive role underscores one of the team's primary objectives -- improved tackling and an all-around more physical attitude, nurtured in part by shorter, more energized practices during the preseason.
Forest Park gave up 18 touchdowns of 20 yards or more last year; twelve of those were from 50 yards or farther. "Borderline ridiculous at times" is Williams's year-later assessment of the defense. Fifteen of the Bruins' past 20 opponents have scored at least 27 points.
There is probably no good time for a first-year varsity team to try to make inroads in the demanding Cardinal, but with the new schedule format, Freedom at least will not have to face Hylton, Woodbridge and Gar-Field twice per season as Forest Park did.
But once should be plenty for a team with only about a half-dozen seniors, one of them running back-linebacker Kasey Carter, whose brother Keenan starred at Potomac and now is the possible starting nose tackle at the University of Virginia.
During its inaugural season, playing a junior varsity schedule, Freedom went 7-2, with a loss to Hylton and a split with Battlefield. This fall, the Eagles boast decent speed but have questions on both lines. There are about 60 players in the JV and varsity programs combined.
"What's that saying, if you shoot for the stars [and fall short], you'll hit the moon?" said Coach John Brown, a junior tight end for his father, Bill, on the Hylton team that went 6-5 and reached the playoffs its first varsity season in 1992. "That's what we're trying to do.
"I don't think in terms of 'realistic.' I think in terms of what our goal is. And our goal is what everybody's goal is -- to win a state championship."