Every year, high school football followers want to know "Who's number one?" in their state, metro area, district or even in their neighborhood. Rarely does anyone ask, What does it take to be number one?
First, we found five top seniors in the Washington area, each of whom personifies a quality integral to a champion. Then we asked them why their particular attribute is paramount to a successful season.
Seneca Valley quarterback Chris Kelley (attitude), Friendly defensive tackle Tiant Thomas (strength), DeMatha tight end-defensive end Jason Lallis (versatility), Fairfax running back Brandon Royster (speed) and Wilson lineman Paris Davis (toughness) can convincingly argue that what they bring to the playing field is critical to winning.
Kelley says without a healthy attitude, success is impossible. Playing at Seneca Valley, winner of 26 consecutive games, is a far cry from his seventh-grade season, when his team won just one game.
"I remember Friday after school going to the field and just getting my butt kicked every game," said Kelley, who not only called the signals last season for the Screamin' Eagles but also was an All-Met linebacker and returned kicks. "That year our team was sloppy, and when we'd practice we'd just go through the motions. You can't do that. That showed me how if I don't have a good attitude, my season is going to end up like that."
With Seneca Valley having won the past two Maryland 4A state championships, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Kelley noticed a disturbing change in the attitude of some teammates early in this preseason.
"Everyone's head is a little big," he said. "Some guys need to calm down a little bit."
Friendly defensive lineman Thomas understands the importance of a winning attitude, but he believes it must be supported by sturdy muscle to handle the rigors of high school football. He discovered that in a hurry.
"When I first saw somebody in pads when I came to Friendly, I knew I had to be about business," said the 6-4, 320-pound Thomas, a Douglass transfer who since his arrival at Friendly in the spring of 1998 has shed about 20 pounds while at the same time adding strength.
"That was a turning point in my decision to work out more. The physical strength complements your mental strength."
Thomas's physical strength is considerable. The quick-study lineman, who had never played football before last season, bench-presses 385 pounds.
The specialized play in professional and college football has not trickled down to most high school programs, which often rely on their best players to perform on offense, defense and special teams.
DeMatha's Lallis believes it is that kind of versatility that gives some teams the winning edge.
"If you're a versatile player, then you should have the speed, and the attitude, and the quickness, and the toughness," he said. "You never know what's going to happen. When you have players who can do all different things, then you have a complete team.
"You have to be willing to adjust and help out the whole cause. But anywhere there's going to be people who want to do what they want to do and aren't looking at the whole picture."
The 6-3, 240-pound Lallis has played tight end and defensive end most of his career. However, he played offensive tackle in two games last season, and DeMatha Coach Bill McGregor said the senior might end up playing fullback or linebacker in college.
"I haven't moved around too much," Lallis said, "but I'm willing to."
Royster has moved a lot, both physically and geographically. He relocated six times while growing up but has settled in Fairfax for his four-year varsity football career. When he's on the move, though, he's really on the move: Royster runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds.
"Speed for Fairfax football is probably the most important thing," Royster said, "because we think if we do everything at full speed we can blow everybody back and do whatever we want to do."
The 6-0, 190-pound Royster realized just how valuable speed could be when he was a middle school football player in Texas. But someone else had to point it out to him.
"The first day of practice everybody was telling me how fast I was," he said. "I didn't really know it until then."
We save the last word for Wilson lineman Davis. The player who calls himself "one of the nicest guys you'd meet" is a staunch proponent of toughness. Plopped on the floor at a recent photo shoot, Davis, who broke a bone in his left foot during preseason practice, waved off another player's offer to help bring him to his feet.
The 6-4, 310-pound Davis got up on his own, settled into his crutches and was on his way.
"Toughness can help you out when you're down, when speed and quickness and strength and all that can't help you," he said. "If we played a team we saw was tough, we'd think more highly of them even if they weren't such good athletes."
Before a game, Davis often can tell just by looking at a particular player whether he is tough. Is he serious and not joking around? Is he straight-faced? Once the game starts, Davis knows if an opponent avoids delivering or absorbing a hit, then that player does not meet his toughness standard.
Davis recalls a teammate last year -- a skinny senior who wanted to play wide receiver -- reluctantly switching to defensive end. In short time, the player evolved from timid offensive reserve to valuable defensive starter. Davis relished the opportunity to witness the transformation.
"He took hits from the pulling guards constantly," Davis said. "He almost never made the tackle, but you never heard him complain about it. He got hit so many times and he got so tough that he didn't care about getting hit any more. When you see somebody change like that, that's pretty good."