In the past 18 months, one of the area’s most renowned high school football teams experienced a transition to a new coach, a host of transfers out of the program, one of its worst seasons in recent memory and the death of a player. And that was before a scandal involving prostitutes rocked the team earlier this fall.
Earlier this week, the Stags’ second-year coach, Elijah Brooks, nodded in the direction of a poster on his desk billing the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference game as a “Great American Rivalry.” He then wondered aloud how that could possibly be, considering DeMatha owns a 41-10-2 all-time advantage over the Falcons.
Brooks knows that can come off as arrogant. (Good Counsel, after all, is the three-time defending WCAC champion and has won three of the past four meetings between the teams.) He understands it’s just more fuel for the folks who love to hate his program.
He also doesn’t care. Self-assurance bordering on conceit is how DeMatha survived its recent stretch of relative turmoil. And it is partly why Brooks feels the Stags are so dangerous now.
“In a down year [in 2011], we were one play away from getting back to the [WCAC] championship game,” Brooks said. “In a down year.
“So for me coming into this year, there is no other option. That’s how we are attacking it. There are no other options. We must compete at a high level to get back to where we were.”
This is where the Stags were at the end of the 2010 season: Winners of 278 games and 17 WCAC titles during the 29-year head coaching tenure of Bill McGregor. And then, in March 2011, McGregor retired, and Brooks was named McGregor’s replacement in May. Several players, including wide receiver Paul Harris — who orally committed to Tennessee in July — consequently departed the program.
During the 2011 season, Brooks’s first at the helm of his alma mater, DeMatha went 6-4 — its fewest wins in at least 20 years — and finished the season unranked in the Post’s Top 20 for the first time since at least 1991. The Stags fell to Gonzaga, 28-27, in overtime in the WCAC semifinals, breaking a streak of 14 consecutive title game appearances.
“I think people kind of wanted to see us fall,” junior wide receiver Chris Jones said. “Coach Brooks being a new coach and us being a young team, people probably thought we were going to have a worse year than we actually had.”
Out of necessity, DeMatha relied on a number of young players with little experience at the varsity level last season. Indeed, Brooks said he has 43 juniors on the team’s current roster and 25 of them played significant minutes in 2011 as sophomores.
In February, senior offensive lineman Rico Webb died after blood clots formed in his lungs. Brooks called it “by far the worst experience I’ve ever had.” But the coach said he believed the incident strengthened his players’ collective resolve.
The summer brought the return of junior middle linebacker Jawhaun Bentley, who sat out last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, as well as the addition of junior quarterback John Lovett, who transferred to DeMatha after moving from Long Island. The players jelled and improved.
“When I came from freshman ball moving up to varsity [in 2011], I thought I was the man,” junior tailback Mark Allen said. “And then coming to practice, I see linebackers almost moving at the same speed as me, catching up to me. So this summer I had to work.”
The Stags crushed Hillside (N.C.) on the road, 52-14, in their season opener. Following the game, however, a handful of players at the team hotel hired prostitutes from a call service. Five players were removed from the team, but that did little to salvage the damage done to DeMatha’s public perception.
“Here at DeMatha, we have a lot of strong-willed boys, and I had the utmost confidence that they would be able, no matter how difficult the situation, to persevere,” Brooks said. “The recent incident, it was definitely rough, but I knew we were built to get through this.”
The Stags defeated Calvert Hall — an opponent that shut them out in 2011 – 23-14 the day after the scandal went public. They proceeded to beat Loyola Blakefield and Dunbar by a combined score of 81-0. DeMatha struggled to defeat both teams last season.
“I think we’re starting to get people’s respect now,” Jones said. “But I think people are still doubting us, still thinking that we’re not the old DeMatha or that we’re not as big as we were when McGregor was here.”
Armed with a slew of talented skill-position players — including Allen, Jones, sophomore tailback Taiwan Deal and junior wide receiver Cameron Phillips — DeMatha possesses the means to return to such a prestigious level. It doesn’t hurt that Lovett already has thrown for more than 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns or that Bentley has been “our best-kept secret,” according to Brooks.
Entering Friday’s contest against an equally-potent Good Counsel squad, the Stags will need all the firepower they can muster. Not that they’re worried about being able to keep pace.
“The fact that we haven’t faced an opponent that has challenged us isn’t a concern going into Good Counsel,” Brooks said. “We’re confident that no matter who we face this year, if we do what we’re supposed to do, we can take care of business.”