If anyone at Damascus High is treating Friday’s football game against Seneca Valley differently from other games, there were no signs of it at the school Wednesday.
A countdown clock on a wall outside the gym ticked toward Friday night, with the simple message of “Beat Seneca Valley” posted underneath. During breaks at the squad’s afternoon practice, players mimicked popular memes and chatted about their classes instead of discussing the milestone they’re likely soon to reach.
Over Damascus’s 50-game winning streak, Coach Eric Wallich has searched for new ways to motivate his team. After Wednesday’s practice, he told his players they need to play their best-ever game because the visiting Screamin’ Eagles will view the match as their “Super Bowl.”
With a victory Friday, Damascus will pass Urbana (1998-2001) for Maryland’s longest winning streak of all time and add onto the country’s longest active winning streak. Damascus’s players are unfazed.
“Nobody’s really tense about it,” running back TD Ayo-Durojaiye said. “We got a lot of three-year varsity players who have been a part of a lot of big games, so we’re used to it.”
Damascus (8-0) has become the premier team in Montgomery County this century — winning six state crowns since 2003 — by relying on a run-heavy system. Many Damascus players learned the team’s schemes and built chemistry as children playing in the Damascus Sports Association.
On Friday nights, landmarks in Damascus shut down as a chunk of the community attends the school’s football game. Kids look on and dream of donning the green, gold and white jerseys, even as high school football participation has dropped nationally because of concussion and health concerns, among other reasons.
While playing for Damascus in the late 1980s, Wallich picked up legendary high school coach Al Thomas’s system. Wallich continued to learn from Thomas when he started coaching, and the 11th-year coach still incorporates many of Thomas’s sets.
“From Week 1 to the state championship, everything we do is exactly the same,” Wallich said. “I don’t want kids to be like, ‘Oh, the coaches are tight. It’s a big game.’ I just want them to be like, ‘This is how we practice every day.’ ”
Damascus’ streak began in 2015, when Jake Funk, who now plays for Maryland, rushed for 2,866 yards and a Maryland-record 57 touchdowns during the season and the Swarmin’ Hornets beat Dundalk in the Maryland Class 3A championship game.
The staples of the last two years’ Damascus teams were robust linemen, such as Michael Jurgens, Jordan Funk and Matt Betterelli, who created running lanes on offense and hardly permitted an inch of room on defense.
Before beating Gwynn Park in last year’s Maryland Class 2A championship, Damascus won two Maryland Class 3A titles. Over their streak, the Swarmin’ Hornets have beaten opponents by an average of 33.6 points.
Damascus has come close to defeat. The Swarmin’ Hornets held on for a two-point victory over Franklin in the 2016 Maryland Class 3A championship after allowing 12 unanswered points. Damascus beat Walkersville, 7-3, in last year’s Maryland 2A West regional final, but it was later found Damascus had 12 players on the field during its touchdown run.
This year’s Damascus seniors haven’t lost a game since middle school. The Swarmin’ Hornets returned six starters from last season, but those include Bryan Bresee, whom 247Sports ranks the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2020. Wise also entered this season with 43 straight victories but lost to Calvert Hall in September.
Online critics have knocked Damascus for not scheduling private schools during its run. Urbana, for reference, beat Gilman in 2001 during its 50-game win streak. Wallich said he’s not opposed to playing a private school, but two losses can eliminate a team from making the Maryland 2A West playoffs, and on top of finding a mutual date to play, Wallich says the process isn’t worth it.
“It’s hard to stay motivated against some of these teams that aren’t as good, I’ll admit,” Ayo-Durojaiye said. “But we strive to play against perfection.”
The Urbana teams that set the state winning-streak record also featured a savvy run game and deep-threat ability. Joseph Conner, the quarterback for the 2001 Urbana team, thought it would take two or three decades for a team to break Urbana’s record.
During Urbana’s spurt, Conner said, folks around Urbana recognized Hawks players during their daily tasks. Urbana was the first Maryland team to secure four consecutive state championships, a feat Damascus has yet to accomplish.
“I signed more autographs my senior year in high school than I have the rest of my life combined by far,” said Conner, who played five years of college lacrosse.
Ayo-Durojaiye said Damascus players are also viewed highly at school and in the community. Handling that attention has helped them manage the spotlight in crucial games.
As Ayo-Durojaiye finished an interview in the locker room Wednesday, his teammates walked behind him and whispered jokes in his ear, trying to make him laugh.
“I remember last year, Walkersville week, everyone was really tense about it,” Ayo-Durojaiye said. “This week, everyone is relaxing.”
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