Malcolm Brown (7) is one of the key players returning for Quince Orchard. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

Quince Orchard handed Clarksburg one of its ugliest losses of the season last fall, a 42-0 thrashing that could’ve been much worse. The Cougars scored 35 points in the first two quarters alone, and held the Coyotes to just 145 total yards of offense.

But there were 11 sophomores starting on that Clarksburg team, and the Cougars haven’t forgotten that. Those Coyotes players are all a year older now; Clarksburg has 16 returning starters and is primed to be improved both up front and on the perimeter.

And Quince Orchard is expected to be better in 2013 as well, despite graduating loads of talent. The aura of the team hasn’t changed, especially with the Cougars coming off their second straight loss in the Maryland 4A title game. The focus is singular: to win a state championship. And the first step in that pursuit is Friday at home against the Coyotes, which promises to be much more of a test than last year’s drubbing. “We don’t prepare differently for every team. We go out and we plan to execute and we plan to make plays,” senior wide receiver Elliot Davis said. “We know Clarksburg has a lot of potential and a lot of weapons, just like we do.”

The primary difference from this season to last, according to Davis, will likely come in the passing game. The philosophy has always been to get the ball in the hands of playmakers, but with the return of quarterback Mike Murtaugh from a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injury last year also marks optimism that Quince Orchard’s passing attack will be more open this year. The Cougars have key playmakers back in Davis, Malcolm Brown and Kyle Gregory, as well as running back and slot back Kevin Joppy, a transfer from Seneca Valley. Coach Dave Mencarini has taken over the play-calling duties after offensive coordinator Josh Klotz departed the team for Richard Montgomery last winter.

Quince Orchard will be tasked with containing the pressure of Clarksburg’s defensive line, which boasts three quality prospects in senior ends Zach Thompson and Bruno Anyangwe and defensive tackle 6-foot-4, 325-pound tackle Brett Martin.

“Friday night is our first chance to make a statement that this team, this 2013 team can separate ourselves from teams in the past,” said Brown, who will start at both wide receiver and cornerback for the Cougars.

Sherwood to rely on Spottswood

Sherwood’s starting defense was wearing red swimming caps over its helmets for much of Wednesday’s practice, the last full hitting session the Warriors conducted in preparation for Saturday’s game against Gaithersburg. The unit was flying around to the ball, taking cracks at one of the team’s best players, running back Elijah Spottswood.

Spottswood will be relied upon heavily on offense in the opener, but the defense will also need him to be at his best against a talented Trojans squad that has high aspirations heading into 2013. Every player on Sherwood’s defense will need to be sound in order to contain Gaithersburg running back Solomon Vault, who was held to just 50 yards on 18 carries in a loss to Sherwood last season.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but if we play our roles right, play our jobs correctly, we shouldn’t have a problem,” defensive end Matt Roberts said. “We played [Vault] last year, and we were able to shut him down then. We didn’t have a problem then, and I think we can do it this year too.”

Saturday will mark the first game in Coach Chris Grier’s tenure, but it will be the second consecutive season that the Warriors are tested by a talented county foe on opening night. Sherwood lost a close contest to Quince Orchard in last year’s first game, which was a key litmus test en route to a 9-3 season, according to Spottswood. Gaithersburg brings more to the table than just Vault; the Trojans return a veteran quarterback in Nick Decarlo and have an intriguing prospect in wide receiver Vicco Bedell. But stopping Vault is a “top priority,” Spottswood said, and will set the tone for the defense moving forward in 2013.

“It’s good to see where we are, mentally, physically,” Spottswood said. “It’s good to have a tough team, not just a weaker team in the county, to start with.”