Good Counsel football coach Bob Milloy says he learned the rule from former Gonzaga and Carroll coach Maus Collins: "If a team from Virginia calls you, look out. And if they call you and tell you they'll come to your house, you really better look out."
Consider Milloy and his No. 1 Falcons on high alert, because No. 4 Robinson will roll up Georgia Avenue for a 7 p.m. game tomorrow in a rare encounter between interstate powers, the rising Wheaton private school hosting an annual contender for the state title in Virginia's largest public school classification.
Each team is still smarting from 2004 championship losses -- Good Counsel to DeMatha in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title game and Robinson to Virginia Beach school Landstown in the Virginia AAA Division 6 final -- that tainted what would have been unbeaten seasons.
It's the kind of game that high school football followers wish would happen more often but hardly ever does, and it wouldn't have happened this year, either, had Robinson Coach Mark Bendorf not put out feelers to public and private schools from across the mid-Atlantic region in an attempt to spice up the Fairfax school's schedule.
Good Counsel, with a hole to fill, bit on the offer. And in a move that might underscore the interest and bragging rights involved in such a matchup, Milloy and Bendorf traded a game tape from last year to dissect during the offseason and tide them over until this fall, when they could swap fresh tapes.
"I think it's a fan's dream to see a matchup like this," said Robinson Principal Dan Meier, who coached West Potomac and Chantilly to Virginia state football titles and looks forward to the Falcons visiting his school next year for the Rams' home opener.
"Around our school, we've been talking about it since the summer," Good Counsel senior wide receiver Drew Gloster said. "I have friends that don't even go to Good Counsel that are going to be at the game. . . . Last season, we'd always look at The Washington Post and see Robinson ranked pretty high all the time. We thought, 'Wow, we'll have a chance to play a public school that's pretty good and see what they're about.' "
The schools share little in common other than lofty rankings. The main difference is that Good Counsel, with about 1,050 students, can recruit its players. Milloy identifies and pursues the top eighth-graders in suburban Maryland and can offer financial aid to help defray the $11,000 annual tuition.
That's a distinction Bendorf wants to make clear to anyone who views tomorrow's game as the consummate interstate tussle. One school can handpick its players, and one cannot.
"This isn't Maryland versus Virginia," said Bendorf, whose team has won 33 consecutive regular season games. "If it was Maryland versus Virginia, we'd be playing [defending Maryland 4A runner-up] Damascus. This is a Virginia public school playing a [Maryland] private school. We're not going over there and playing a Maryland 4A school."
Robinson, the largest public high school in Virginia with more than 3,000 students, draws from its populous surrounding neighborhoods, where youth league players fantasize about suiting up for the Rams and relish rubbing elbows with the older boys in royal blue and gold immediately after games.
"I know when I was in middle school, everyone wanted to play for Robinson," Rams senior linebacker Jack Curtis said Friday after a 61-0 home pasting of Fairfax, at which the home bleachers were full even though school had not yet started. "It's kind of what you look forward to doing."
Good Counsel plays in a no-frills stadium with bleachers on just one side -- many fans cluster on the hill by the field -- and practices at nearby Wheaton Forest Park because the practice field at school is about two-thirds the width of a regulation field with a sharp drop-off. Milloy jokes that a receiver could go out for a pass and never be heard from again.
The Rams have their pick of three practice fields, and their stadium features freshly installed Bermuda grass -- "it's like a fairway," Milloy observed when scouting at Robinson last week -- an elaborate $75,000 scoreboard, new visitors bleachers and tasteful landscaping.
These stadium projects are funded in part by the "Robinson Rams Oasis" concession stand that features 12 windows with eager hawkers, and a booster club that sells everything from standard athletic apparel to Ram earrings and Beanie Rams.
Robinson installed a brass ram on top of the ticket window last season, with lights illuminating the beast after dark. This season, the school added a smaller brass ram beyond an end zone for the players to touch as they make their way onto their home field on game nights. Another recent flourish: one player carrying an American flag and another carrying a Robinson flag as the team makes its way from the locker room.
Only in the past couple years has Good Counsel had a marching band, with modest participation; Robinson's unit numbers 211 strong, prompting Meier and Activities Director Mike McGurk to shout to be heard above the din.
"High school football is a unique American experience that I think Robinson does as well as anybody," said Meier, who has two sons on the team.
For their part, the Rams appreciate the college-like feel to their home games, but such trappings belie their blue-collar tendencies. Their bruising yet businesslike style is part lunch pail -- the top weightlifters pose shirtless in the game program -- and part briefcase.
"It's fun to have all this stuff, but -- it sounds bad -- it's kind of like having an ugly girl in a nice prom dress," Robinson senior running back Lucas Caparelli said with a smile. "It still comes down to what you do between the lines. You can have all the smoke and all the razzle-dazzle all you want, but you've got to come and play."
Good Counsel currently is building a new school, but the Falcons echo Caparelli's sentiments -- it doesn't matter where they play.
"We could practice in these apartments over here and we really wouldn't care," senior quarterback Tyrell Jones said, motioning to a structure next to the off-campus practice field. "Just as long as we get it done on the field, that's all we're working on."
"We have a lot of pride at Good Counsel," Gloster said, "and we don't need all the extra stuff to make us feel any better than what we already feel now."
Football players feeling that upbeat at Good Counsel is a fairly recent development. The Falcons were mostly middling until Milloy arrived in 2001. His Springbrook and Sherwood teams won eight Maryland championships in his 31 years of public school coaching, and although he said he misses the community aspect of those schools, he likes the "mom and pop" vibe at Good Counsel, where alumni often return to work and teach.
"Football's football, and kids are kids," Milloy said between puffs on a cigar after practice. "The only thing I've noticed is that in our league there just seems to be more big guys. There are more kids who go to college and play football in this league compared to the public school league."
Milloy has started such traditions as the players eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before road games, distributing "consequence cards" with codes of behavior and handing out about 20 gift certificates every week for a variety of superlatives, from top student to best downfield block.
Despite Milloy's track record, Good Counsel is still in the honeymoon phase of winning. Robinson is 86-13 in eight-plus years under Bendorf, with two state titles, and has endured only three losing seasons since 1977, and none since 1989. The Rams' coaching staff's motto? Kaizen, a Japanese manufacturing term meaning continuous improvement.
Of course, Robinson's rich history and Good Counsel's new-found success might not mean anything tomorrow night.
"[A loss] will hurt you in the rankings around here and around the country, but hey, if you can't win, you shouldn't be ranked anyway," Milloy said. "I guess if you get beat, you'll say, 'What the heck am I doing playing those guys?' And if you win, you'll say, 'Yeah, bring 'em on.' "