Good Counsel looks to defend its WCAC crown and top ranking in The Post for the fifth straight season (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post).

Beginning the season against a tough national opponent is nothing new for Good Counsel but last year, the Falcons’ first game became more of an event.

Off the Falcons traveled across two time zones to Las Vegas for a Friday night game under the bright lights of ESPN’s broadcast crew. Though they ended up losing to Bishop Gorman, the defeat set the tone for the foreseeable future, from throughout the Falcons’ run to their fourth straight Washington Catholic Athletic Conference crown and No. 1 ranking in The Post to now, with the Falcons about two weeks away from their second straight ESPN opener, this time against in-state rival Gillman.

“We kind of use it as motivation during the summer,” Good Counsel senior wide receiver C.J. Carroll said. “All of our weight training, 7-on-7 and preseason practice build up to that game, and then once we hit that game, we get better throughout the season and we’re rolling on all cylinders.”

For a team that lost skilled leaders such as All-Met Offensive Player of the Year Kendall Fuller, RB/LB Dorian O’Daniel, QB Brendan Marshall and LB Marcel Ngachie, a strong start will be key in unifying Good Counsel’s relatively young roster.

Many eyes will be on the play of junior quarterback Bryan Strittmatter, who served as the Falcons’ kicker until Marshall went down with an injury in the second quarter of last year’s WCAC semifinal. Strittmatter stepped in and protected the team’s 14-point lead while earning valuable reps for his first season as a starter.

“We put a lot on our quarterback. He’s smart and he’s been fine so far. It’s just different having a 6-5 guy who’s going to Virginia and a 5-11 junior who’s out there for the first time,” Falcons Coach Bob Milloy said. “But he’s been in pressure situations before and he led our freshman team to an undefeated season, so it’s not like he’s from Yugoslavia right off the soccer team.”

Along with having a three-year varsity veteran in Carroll at wideout and the explosive Leo Ekwoge (496 yards and 13 touchdowns as a reserve) at running back, Strittmatter will have Notre Dame recruit Sam Mustipher protecting his blind side at left tackle. The senior lineman has made a point to reaffirm his new quarterback, using it as another opportunity to build the trust among this already tight-knit group.

“With a young quarterback, you’ve got to make sure he’s good and I tell him in practice: nobody will touch you. If that means I have to hold somebody, no one will get to you,” Mustipher said. “This team is a family. On and off the field, we’re always together. We have the talent to be a good team but when that trust builds and guys understand their roles, that’s when you become a really, really good team.”

Defensively, the Falcons have the potential to pressure their opponents into bad decisions behind strong, speedy linemen Jesse Aniebonam and Darius Fullwood. The secondary is led by Kentucky commit and senior safety Kobie Walker, who displays strength and versatility in open space.

As the national preseason rankings have rolled out, the question among some is if Good Counsel is good enough this season to fend off a DeMatha team bursting with Football Bowl Subdivision recruits along with fellow WCAC contenders such as Gonzaga and St. John’s.

Ultimately, these arguments will be settled on the field, which is why Aniebonam pays the preseason chatter and rankings no mind.

“They come at us with that every year, saying we lost so and so and we’re not going to be as good here or there, but that just goes in one ear and out the other,” said Aniebonam, who will choose among Maryland, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Maryland and UNC on ESPN during the season opener. “We know the type of talent we have on this team and our coaches are all smart and know how to progress us to where we need to be.”

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