Wilde Lake's football players hoisted their helmets and stormed the field after a 24-21 victory over Long Reach on Friday night, their first home game under the lights and a game that boosted long-dormant confidence.
"We have our swagger back now," senior quarterback Nate Andorsky said. "There was some concern that if we lost to Long Reach, especially after what we've been through the last two years, that we'd lose our swagger. But now, we're right back on top -- where we should be."
"I've coached this team for 34 years, and in terms of big wins, I'd put that one at number two behind beating Allegany in 1985 for our first state title," Coach Doug DuVall said. "We'd been struggling the last couple of seasons, and it was like we lost all of our confidence."
Wilde Lake lost three games in each of the past two seasons -- all to teams that went on to make the playoffs. Before that, the team had dominated the league for two decades, during which it won five state titles.
The Wildecats' downward spiral last year began against Long Reach, when it squandered a seven-point lead in the final two minutes to lose, 17-14.
Wilde Lake was never the same. The team wilted in the second half against River Hill and Glenelg and was out of the playoff race before Halloween.
"Those kind of games we would always find a way to win [in years past]," DuVall said. "Last year we just couldn't take care of business late in games."
Several of Wilde Lake's top returning players said those losses motivated them to succeed this year, particularly because two of the losses were by a combined six points.
"We felt even though the season didn't go the way we wanted, we were still one step away from making the playoffs," said senior left tackle Nick Lenowitz. "We thought with the guys coming back if we pushed ourselves harder we could take that next step and return to glory."
DuVall said he noticed a change on the first day of practice. He saw seniors playing with a toughness and sense of urgency that was missing last season.
Still, DuVall was worried, knowing that intensity at practice doesn't always translate to success against top teams. He was going to see what his team was made of and so was one of the largest crowds in Wilde Lake history.
"It was like everyone at our school showed up for the game," said senior cornerback Eddie Thomas. "I'd never seen so many people at one of our games. We needed to play like a great team."
That's exactly what the Wildecats did. Junior running back Zach Brown rushed for a game-high 102 yards and senior running back Jarad Flagg rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown and scored another touchdown on a 70-yard screen pass. On defense, Thomas intercepted a screen pass and returned it 70 yards for another score, and first-year kicker Ryan King, a senior, made a 19-yard field goal midway through the final quarter that proved to be the difference.
"Last year, we didn't have the horsepower to win a game like that," DuVall said. "But this year, we have warriors who have the mindset that they are going to run the ball down your throat, and you're not going to stop us."
Wilde Lake hopes the victory serves as springboard to more success.
"It's a huge win for us, but it still goes down in the record book as one win," Andorsky said. "We enjoyed it all weekend, but on Monday, we'll forget about it because we need to worry about beating Howard this week and then the rest of the teams on our schedule so we can make it to the playoffs."