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Ten burning questions for the 2014 Maryland high school football season

Northwest surprised Maryland 4A with its 2013 state title (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)
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After months of optional workouts, 7-on-7 passing leagues, and rewatching the Post’s Top Plays of each week of 2013 again and again, the time for real, live football has finally come: practice for Maryland public schools officially begins Wednesday, and with it, a new season’s worth of storylines. Here are 10 crucial questions to be answered by area teams as the season unfolds:

Is Northwest dynasty-ready?

After moderate preseason expectations and a couple mid-season losses, some area coaches will tell you eventual 4A state champion Northwest was never the best team in Maryland last year until the boys from Germantown won the state title. The championship rings they’ll wear into 2014 make the Jaguars the early favorite in Montgomery County, but whether or not they’re repeat-ready is another question.

The answer will likely come from rising junior quarterback Mark Pierce, whose emergence as an unflappable, unstoppable passer coincided with Northwest’s six-game, season-ending win streak. He threw for more than 1,400 yards as a sophomore, 20 touchdowns and only three interceptions, but lost speedy top targets Matt Watson (seven touchdown receptions) and Rasheed Gillis (five) to graduation. Whether or not Northwest replenishes that speed, and how well Pierce incorporates his new offensive teammates will go a long way in determining whether the Jaguars can run away from Maryland 4A competition again.

Can River Hill bounce back?

You’re doing something right when a season that ends in the state semifinal is a no-doubt down year, but that’s the reality for River Hill, which won back-to-back 3A state titles in 2011 and 2012 before watching a lead slip away against Linganore in last year’s state semifinal. The Hawks graduated 21 players from that team, including almost their entire starting offense: quarterback Drew Pritchard, top rusher Kalonji Moore, and weapons like Chris Galloway, Cory Daniel and Tre Patterson are gone. The Hawks were hit hard by graduation defensively, too, with the loss of defensive linemen Logan Kirby and linebacker Cyrus Vaughn. Coach Brian Van Deusen and his staff will be breaking in new faces at key places all over the field.

The Hawks do have pieces to build around: rising senior linebacker Brian Kirby will help stabilize the new-look defense, while Tyler Smith gives them a veteran anchor on the offensive line. But whether or not the Hawks find the pieces to reload — and whether they find enough of them to regain their usual Maryland 3A stature — will be a key question for Howard County fans this season.

Where does Patuxent stack up?

Questions involving “where” and “Patuxent” normally find the words “way down there” in their answers. But the Panthers and their loving Lusby fan base proved last season they rank way up there among Maryland 2A teams. The question this season is how far up?

Last year, Patuxent charged into the state title game undefeated before falling to annual powerhouse Middletown. Led by gritty Tyler Crounse at quarterback, the Panthers got out of the 2A South region for the first time in his father Steve’s tenure as head coach. They’d fallen to Prince George’s County power Douglass in the first round both years prior. Crounse is back, but many of the Panthers’ skill position talents — including 1,315-yard rusher Rafiq Douglas and his 20 rushing TDs — are not.

Can anyone knock off Middletown?

Middletown has dominated Maryland 2A in recent years, and hasn’t lost a game since 2011. Three-time defending state champions, the Knights generally play Goliath to whatever area 2A team makes its way to play David at M&T Bank Stadium each year, stifling their challengers with girth and a powerful defense, most recently Douglass in 2012 and Patuxent in 2013. Those two teams may be the Knights’ most likely challengers in 2014, with Douglass boasting enough size on its offensive and defensive lines to perhaps hang in there against them, should the Eagles get that far. Gwynn Park may also have enough left from last year’s 2A South finalist team to make a run.

Who will emerge from Prince George’s County 4A? 

Week in and week out, Prince George’s 4A competition is among the state’s staunchest, and unsurprisingly the league has produced a state finalist in four of the last five years. Last year, undersized Suitland ran around the rest of the county and into the state title game. In 2009, 2010 and 2012, it was Wise representing the county in the title game.

This year, Prince George’s looks as wide open as ever. Suitland was hit hard by graduation, Wise has reloaded as usual, and last year’s 4A South region finalist DuVal returns its dynamic starting quarterback Antoine Brooks. Eleanor Roosevelt may have the county’s best offensive line, which in this run-heavy county often equates to wins, particularly because that line features one of the nation’s most highly rated offensive-line prospects in Isaiah Prince. He’ll have a healthy Mike Mofor running behind him this season, and after a down year in 2013, his Roosevelt team may be ready to bruise its way back to the top of the county. Last year’s surprise playoff team, Bowie, and emerging Oxon Hill may also rise as challengers.

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Was Suitland a one-year wonder?

The report on the Rams before last season was that they were undersized and hit hard by graduation. Then they made a run to the state championship game.

The report this season is similar: many of Suitland’s most dynamic offensive players — quarterback Wesley Wolfolk and gutsy running back Robert Wigfall among them — are gone to graduation, as is first-team All-Met linebacker Anthony Jackson, the heart of the relentlessly speedy Suitland defense and Hawaii-bound defensive back Nick Nelson. But Coach Ed Shields has a way of finding speedy skill players and making things work, and he found an explosive playmaker in rising junior receiver Tevin Singleton late last season. Whether he can find others to fill in around Singleton will have a major impact on how Prince George’s 4A plays out in 2014.

How will Quince Orchard fare in the post-Mencarini era?

Quince Orchard Coach Dave Mencarini shocked Montgomery County’s football community when he resigned as head coach of the Cougars to take the job at Urbana in February. He led the Cougars to a 107-18 record in 10 seasons and three berths in the state title game. Quince Orchard won the 4A title in 2007.

His Cougars won a playoff game in every season but his first at the helm, and will now be directed by Mencarini’s defensive coordinator John Kelley, 33, who was promoted after Mencarini’s departure. The Cougars lost key players to graduation, and will be trying to reload offensively while bolstering their defense around Penn State-bound defensive end Adam McLean. No doubt the rest of 4A will be watching intently to see whether Kelley can work the same magic with what has this season as Mencarini did for the decade before, and he’ll get a test in his season opener against talented Clarksburg.

Who will come out of Anne Arundel County?

An Anne Arundel County team hasn’t played in the 4A state championship game since Old Mill turned in a perfect 2011 season and knocked off Quince Orchard by one point in the title game. Meade was the last Anne Arundel team standing last year, but the Mustangs were decimated by graduation. In all likelihood, that means the baton passes back to one of the other traditional powers, Arundel or Old Mill.

Arundel may be the favorite, led by senior quarterback Anthony Messenger who is surrounded by returning receivers in a pass-heavy offense he knows inside out. Old Mill completed a perfect regular season before falling to Arundel in the first round of the playoffs last year, and return a senior quarterback in Brady Ludwig. He’ll be handing off to veteran running back Donovan Franklin in an offense backed by a strong defense which returns key cogs like linebacker/safety Noah Fitzgerald and linebacker Malik Hicks.

How far can Jalen Christian carry Damascus?

In the past two seasons, Damascus has lost three games combined, playing to a 19-3 record, losing one game — that by a score of 7-6 to Quince Orchard last year — to Montgomery County competition. The problem has been Urbana, which knocked the Swarmin’ Hornets out of the playoffs in the first round both years.

Defensive back/athlete/receiver Jalen Christian has been a key part of both teams, a do-it-all player who will suit up for South Carolina next year.  The 2013 first-team All-Met has done just about everything in his high school career but lead his team on a deep playoff run, something he says he’s determined to do this fall. Throughout the offseason, Damascus focused on finishing, something the Hornets couldn’t do in a 35-34 loss to Urbana in last year’s first round. Christian hopes he can finish his final season with a breakthrough, rather than the kind of early playoff exit that’s frustrated him and his teammates in recent years.

Are we in for some surprises?

Who’s this season’s Northwest? Or Mark Pierce? Can someone dethrone Middletown in 2A or Fort Hill in 1A? Will another young quarterback step in and step up? Teams like Wise and Suitland and others will need them to do so. Can an unexpected team emerge from Prince George’s 4A? Roosevelt may be ready. Could the SMAC win a state title…?

Some surprises would be more surprising than others. Regardless, you can count on AllMetSports to have you covered from day one of camp (today!) through the final whistles at M&T Bank Stadium in December, when all our questions will be answered.

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