It is another week of pre-dawn wakeups and bleary-eyed film sessions for Seneca Valley Coach Fred Kim. Al Thomas's alarm buzzes at 3:58 and he readies No. 9 Sherwood for a showdown with the No. 13 Screamin' Eagles tonight, his first return to Seneca Valley since a remarkable 14-year run there.
Ditto for Dan Makosy at No. 2 Damascus, who ponders the same question before taking on Dave Mencarini and No. 18 Quince Orchard: How do you outthink a coach that knows exactly what you are trying to do?
Kim, who started for Thomas's 1987 championship team at Seneca Valley and later returned to serve as an assistant there under Terry Changuris -- now a Thomas assistant -- knows what he's up against.
"It's impossible to block it out," Kim said. "Every time I'm thinking about what they're doing to prepare and I'm thinking, 'I'm going to outwork these guys.' It's going to be a heck of a ride because these guys are as good as it gets and it's exciting to go against the best when you have an opportunity to beat them."
There are four Montgomery County public school teams that are still unbeaten -- Damascus, Sherwood, Seneca Valley and Quince Orchard -- and all of the coaching staffs have links to Thomas. It's no surprise: For someone who won seven state titles as a head coach (five at Seneca Valley and two at Damascus), Thomas will forever be marked by his influence over those who came after him.
"You have to understand, I've never been at a school that wasn't a good football school," Thomas said. "What's proof is that when I've left, those teams have actually done better. The truth is I was just doing my job and trying not to screw it up."
Indeed, Seneca Valley went on to win seven titles under Changuris after Thomas left in 1987, and Damascus won two championships after he left in 1993. At each school, there are reminders of Thomas everywhere.
Makosy still runs the same four wing-T plays during warmups that the Hornets used during Thomas's reign, and at Seneca Valley it's common for an alumnus to stop by practice and show off a state championship ring. But the most binding thread is an almost fanatical adherence to detail and a theory that no amount of preparation is too much.
"The thing that sticks in my mind is that Al prepared for everybody exactly the same way, whether it was an 0-9 team or a 9-0 team," Makosy said. "You have to take that approach and make the kids believe in it. In all the years Al's been coaching, he's never lost a game he wasn't supposed to lose."
If the other three teams are among Montgomery's elite year in and year out, Quince Orchard is getting close. Mencarini, a former Changuris assistant at Seneca Valley, succeeded Kim last season and resuscitated a program that hadn't made the playoffs since 1993.
"We're happy where we are right now," Mencarini said. "It would be nice if we were talked about in the same breath as Damascus, Seneca and Sherwood, but those guys have been doing it for a long time. We've been doing it for a couple of years."