Atholton senior Matt Winger knew he had to change.
He always had the blazing speed and elusiveness to be a top running back, but his demeanor prevented him from reaching his potential.
"He would have had 1,000 yards last year if he wasn't selfish," Atholton Coach Chuck Fales said. "He was putting himself before the team, and I benched him [for a game] late in the season because of it. Then he got hurt the second-to-last game, and that was it."
Fales had several conversations with Winger about being a team player during the offseason -- and the talks made a difference.
Winger has been a positive force this fall on the field, where he rushed for a school-record 1,758 yards and 19 touchdowns, and away from it, where he bought doughnuts for teammates and rewarded linemen with meals at fast food restaurants.
"I learned my lesson, and I'm glad I did," Winger said. "I look back on what happened last year, and now I'm a totally different person."
Winger's emergence played a major role in transforming what had been the county's worst team during the past decade into one that will make its first playoff appearance in 20 years. The Raiders (7-3) host McDonough (6-4) in the first round of the 2A South Region tournament at 7 p.m. tomorrow.
"This season has just been so incredible already," Winger said. "Our goal was to be .500 and if we would have done that, we would have been happy. But now, just look how far we've come."
Atholton won just four games combined the previous four seasons and had not posted a winning record since going 7-3 in 1996. And this fall, it appeared the Raiders' struggles would continue with a 2-3 start. But instead of folding, they responded by ending the regular season on a five-game winning streak, their longest since a six-game run in 1996.
During the streak, Winger rushed for 939 yards and 12 touchdowns on 143 carries to power his team to the top seed in the region tournament.
"Usually, our season is over at this time," Fales said. "We're usually looking forward to Thanksgiving and the holidays. But now, I told our guys they better not make any plans, because our goal is to be playing in the state championship game at M&T Bank Stadium in December."