J.B. Walton started high school in 2002 with modest athletic ambitions -- play a little football and maybe hook on with a college team. He couldn't afford to think too grand; his high school, Lackey, had had only one winning season in the previous four and had not been to the playoffs in nine years. Who was going to notice him?
Four years later, Walton will graduate as one of the most sought-after offensive line recruits in the nation. His four-year varsity career included a whopping 40 victories, and his Lackey class had the winningest three-year stretch (34-6) of any in Southern Maryland Athletic Conference history.
"I guess I just came to the right place at the right time," Walton said.
That time ended for Walton on Saturday with Lackey's 26-6 loss at Gwynn Park in the Maryland 3A South Region final, a title the Chargers held the past two seasons. Lackey seniors Walton, Greg Bowman, Bryan Gibbons, Dante Page and Aaron Smith are the last players to be a part of the Chargers teams that made 3A title game appearances in 2003 and '04, seasons that revitalized the program.
"You could see how we started getting more fans," Walton said. "It was real big for the school."
Each of the past three seasons provided a different challenge for Lackey. In 2003, a talented but raw young team overachieved, making the school's first playoff appearance since 1993 and capping it with a trip to the 3A final.
The next season, with nearly the entire core back, Lackey had to prove its success was not a fluke and won 13 straight games before losing again in the state final.
This season, Lackey proved its success was a credit to the program and not just a handful of players from the previous two seasons. And when the Chargers started the season 2-2, including a homecoming loss to Chopticon, it did not look promising.
"Everyone thought we would come back to being the old Lackey," sophomore running back Mike Johnson said.
From there, the Chargers ran off seven consecutive victories, including against three playoff teams -- Thomas Stone, McDonough and Friendly. They clearly weren't the old Chargers.
But last weekend at Gwynn Park, Lackey looked and sounded old. The Chargers were banged up, most notably Gibbons, a co-captain, who dislocated his elbow on Lackey's fourth offensive play against Friendly in the region semifinal Nov. 18. Not only was Gibbons Lackey's best defensive player, but he was the team's fullback, long snapper and, as Coach Scott Chadwick said, "our best playoff player," given his brilliance in last year's postseason.
"It was real tough knowing my high school career was over, and I couldn't do anything about it," Gibbons said.
Still, for the Chargers to get to that game seemed improbable.
"When we were 2-2, nobody gave us a shot at playing for a regional championship," Chadwick said. "I told them after the Chopticon game that there are a lot of people who worked hard to get this program to where it is, and now we're letting them down.
"After the [Gwynn Park] game, I told them that they didn't let them down. They kept the program going."
The challenge will be to keep it going next year. The links to both state finalist teams will be gone.
"It was a real big challenge trying to replace guys like Jeremy [Hairston], Kevin [Glascock] and Morgan [Green] this year, but we did it," Johnson said. "Next year, we've got to start all over again because the people who are leaving this year are big. But we're going to do it. We're not the old Lackey."