In this week’s notebook, we cover Stone Bridge, St. John’s, Paint Branch, Good Counsel, Meade, Freedom-Woodbridge and Woodbridge.
THE SNAP COUNT: STONE BRIDGE AND ST. JOHN’S AGAIN FIND THEMSELVES ON THE VERGE OF HISTORIC SEASONS. THEIR SUCCESS WILL DEPEND ON HOW CLOSELY THEY CAN HOLD ONTO THEIR IDENTITIES.
Case in point: After Stone Bridge recovered a fumble for a scoop-and-score touchdown in Week 10 against rival Broad Run, Bulldogs Coach Mickey Thompson didn’t call another pass play for the rest of the night.
Stone Bridge took the ball on its next drive and salted away the game’s final nine minutes. The Bulldogs drove some 60 yards on that possession. Thompson called the same play for 12 consecutive snaps, until they reached a fourth-down and five.
Tailback Nick Mell faked a run left and went right instead for seven yards and first down. There was no need to get fancy.
“I was thinking, ‘Just get a couple yards each time. Inch it forward, inch it forward,’ ” Mell said.
That’s the message Thompson has ingrained in his team, which uses the run-heavy single-wing offense — and has for decades. It keeps the Bulldogs clicking.
When St. John’s trailed rival Gonzaga at halftime Saturday, Coach Joe Casamento went back to the Cadets’ bread and butter: a run-pass option set that allows quarterback Kevin Doyle to distribute the ball quickly and lessens stress on the offensive line.
“The guys were starting to press. They were trying to win it on one play,” Casamento said of the first half.
That’s not what St. John’s does. It wears defenses out with seven-yard chunks every play, then all of a sudden someone breaks a tackle and winds up in the end zone. Opposing teams are left wondering how it all happened.
“We know who we are,” Casamento said. “We are under control.”
The Cadets face DeMatha in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference semifinals Saturday. Stone Bridge hosts Lee on Friday night in the Virginia 5C Region quarterfinals.
Here are the other top high school football stories in the Washington, D.C. area:
» PAINT BRANCH BACK ON TOP OF MARYLAND 4A NORTH
Paint Branch Coach Mike Nesmith and a couple of seniors who played varsity as freshmen in 2014 remember the strains of playoff travel: bus rides in traffic and once having a small, cold portable classroom as a locker room while sharing public restrooms with fans.
The Panthers haven’t had those obstacles since, missing the past two postseasons. And they won’t endure them this week, either.
The Panthers (9-1) are the No. 1 seed in Maryland 4A North, guaranteeing them at least one more home game if they beat Perry Hall (8-2) on Friday night.
“When you’re home, you’re home. You don’t have to deal with those issues, so that was our motivation,” Nesmith said. “Now we want to win the region and we want to win states.”
The Panthers came close to the 2015 postseason with an 8-2 record but ended 2016 at 5-5 with a “sour taste” that Nesmith said never lessened.
With veteran leadership, including outside linebacker Durell Nchami, a Maryland commitment, Paint Branch vowed to improve and now averages more than double the points (31) it has surrendered to opponents (14.8).
Should they beat Perry Hall, on a six-game winning streak, the Panthers would host Howard (10-0) or Sherwood (8-2).
» IN THE WCAC, WHY NOT GOOD COUNSEL?
As Good Counsel gears up to face Gonzaga in the WCAC semifinals this weekend, it’s with the knowledge that any team could come away as victors after a season full of parity.
“It’s as wide open as I can remember it in many, many years,” Coach Andy Stefanelli said. “Any of the four teams could win it this year, and honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the four do it.”
There are plenty of reasons to believe second-seeded Good Counsel could seize the opportunity. For one, it has a track record of finishing strong.
The last time Good Counsel faced Gonzaga, on Oct. 27, the Falcons trailed 7-0 at halftime before storming back for a 27-7 victory. It wasn’t the first time this season they’ve mounted an impressive comeback against a strong opponent. Earlier in the season, they scored 37 unanswered points to beat a tough Spalding team.
“The team’s really been playing with pretty high confidence really since early in the season,” Stefanelli said. “We had a couple big wins early and that really helped the team with our confidence, and now I think we’ve just been steadily improving our play overall.”
» MEADE CHANNELS ‘ROAD WARRIOR’ SPIRIT, STARES DOWN UNBEATEN BROADNECK
There are two parallels between Meade’s theme of the week and the program’s current situation, one more obvious than the other.
The first is easy. The Mustangs, the fourth seed in Maryland’s 4A East, likely won’t play another home game this postseason, as far as they advance, starting with this Friday at No. 1 seed Broadneck. So, learning about the Road Warriors, the former professional wrestling tag team, makes sense, given their name.
But Coach Albert Jones chose this week’s theme for more than the play on words. He wants his Mustangs to channel the intensity of the Road Warriors, the bombastic, face-painted, muscled-up bruising duo of Hawk and Animal.
“It’s about the attitude they brought when they came to the ring,” Jones said. “You come into the arena, do your job. Then you leave, go to the next arena and do the same thing. . . . You’re always on the road, grinding, doing the same thing.”
Meade will need to adopt that mentality to advance past the high-powered Bruins in the program’s first playoff game since 2013 and the first of Jones’ three-year tenure.
The Mustangs (8-2) lost to Broadneck (10-0) in the regular season, but the 28-21 Bruins victory was the team’s smallest margin of victory. And Meade believes its familiarity with Broadneck’s offense can help tip the rematch in their favor.
“All we want to do is prove to the rest of the state that we’re here,” Jones said, “and we’re here for a reason.”
» TOUCHDOWN MACHINE A.J. FELTON AND FREEDOM-WOODBRIDGE STILL HUNGRY AFTER 10 WINS
Few teams in the area dominated the regular season like No. 10 Freedom-Woodbridge. Senior quarterback A.J. Felton scored 50 combined touchdowns on the ground and through the air as the undefeated Eagles won nine games by double digits.
“His decision-making has gotten better every week. It might have even surprised me sometimes,” Coach Darryl Overton said. “We run a lot of read-option, and he’s been making all the right calls. He’s just a natural playmaker.”
Friday night, the Eagles host South County (5-5), which lost four games by single digits. Freedom-Woodbridge (10-0) is the top seed in Virginia Region 6C but has much loftier goals than celebrating any regular season accomplishments.
“I don’t have to worry about keeping them grounded. This was our goal from the beginning. We knew we’d be in this spot,” Overton said. “This wasn’t a surprise for my guys. They’re hungry, and they’re not satisfied with 10 wins.”
» WOODBRIDGE EARNS HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE, WILL FACE HIGHFLYING MOUNT VERNON
Woodbridge (9-1) is the Virginia 6C Region’s second seed and will face Mount Vernon (7-3) on Friday in its first home playoff game since 2009.
“It’s something I’ve been waiting on for a long time, and it’s something this senior class earned,” Coach Gary Wortham said.
In a 41-14 loss Oct. 13, the Vikings held Freedom-Woodbridge to its lowest point total of the season. The Prince William County rivals could meet again in a state quarterfinal, but neither has anything to say about the future beyond Friday.
“It’s a one-week season. We can’t look to tomorrow. We got to look at who we’re dealing with now,” Wortham said.
» Monday notebook: Is this finally the year for St. John’s?
» Week 10 rewind: St. John’s comes out firing, routs Gonzaga
The Virginia High School League is waiting until the state title matchups are set before deciding where each classification will play Dec. 9, in hopes of making the trips to the stadiums (which all happen to be in southern Virginia) more convenient.
The games will be played at the Salem Civic Center outside Roanoke, the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg or at Armstrong Stadium at Hampton University.