At this time last year, the Centennial football team was in the midst of a five-game losing streak and starting to prepare for 2013. Now, we'll see how far the Eagles have come.
Centennial (5-1) is tied with Glenelg for second place in Howard County, behind undefeated defending state champion River Hill. The Eagles are in a strong position to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 1980.
"I'm happy for the coaches and the kids to see all of this paying off," said third-year coach Todd Kriner, who endured a one-win season and a three-win season leading up to this year's breakthrough campaign. "We're not done trying to get better. There are still areas for improvement in all three aspects."
Centennial is going to need to finish strong if it hopes to make this season memorable. Competing in the highly competitive 3A East region, the Eagles are fighting for four playoff spots with Glenelg, River Hill and undefeated City, not to mention surging Reservoir, which is trying to make the playoffs for the second straight season.
"It's going to come down to these last few games," Kriner said.
The push begins this Friday night at Howard (4-2). While a win for either team won't ensure a playoff berth, a loss would be damaging.
The Lions, who moved up to the 4A North this year, have lost two tough road games in a row, at Glenelg and at Reservoir, to start slipping out of the playoff picture. And Howard still has Hammond (4-2) and undefeated River Hill ahead on the schedule.
But with strong line play and star running back Terrell Charles (140 carries, 903 yards, 11 touchdowns) in the backfield, and a defense anchored by talented returning starters, Howard is capable of beating any team in the league.
"They're a pretty big team, and they're a pretty physical team," Kriiner said.
Centennial will be looking to create turnovers on Friday night, after taking the ball away from Atholton six times last Saturday in a 31-0 homecoming win.
"This is the most talented Centennial team that I have seen," Howard coach Bruce Strunk said. "They have a lot of weapons, and their kids are playing with confidence."
The Eagles have been led in the turnover game by Jabari Mansell (two forced fumbles), Connor Marcinek (three fumble recoveries), John Kolp (two fumble recoveries), Kade Conner (two fumble recoveries), Damon Reaves (five interceptions) and Chase Conley (three interceptions). That group has helped Centennial force 21 turnovers in six games.
"It certainly helps," Kriner said. "It seems like we have two or three fumble recoveries and two or three picks per game."
And Centennial has been protecting the ball on offense. Senior tailback Walter Fletcher has rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns. He's lost only three fumbles in 152 attempts.
"He worked really hard in the offseason, and he is certainly helping our team working with an experienced offensive line," Kriner said.
Eagles quarterback Tyler Morris has spread out opposing defenses by getting the ball to Reaves (10 catches, 176 yards) and Conley (8, 181).
If Centennial can survive the Howard test on Friday night, the schedule doesn't get any easier, with a home game against Glenelg on Oct. 25.
Friday, Oct. 11 results
Glenelg 49, Oakland Mills 8
Mt. Hebron 20, Long Reach 13
Reservoir 13, Howard 6
River Hill 33, Wilde Lake 0
Saturday, Oct. 12 results
Centennial 31, Atholton 0
Hammond 44, Marriotts Ridge 14
Thursday, Oct. 17 game
Wilde Lake (3-3) at Mt. Hebron (1-5)
Friday, Oct. 18 games
Atholton (1-5) at Oakland Mills (2-4)
Centennial (5-1) at Howard (4-2)
Hammond (4-2) at River Hill (6-0)
Reservoir (4-2) at Long Reach (1-5)
Saturday, Oct. 19 game
Marriotts Ridge (1-5) at Glenelg (5-1)