Last fall, while the Westminster High School football team put together a special 9-1 season and won its first county championship in six years, Deryk Kern waited for his chance to be an impact player.
Listed second on the depth chart behind senior quarterback Romie Cheese, Kern saw plenty of action in lopsided Westminster wins while continuing to hone his skills.
In his senior year, Kern has made the most of his opportunity. During the span of three weeks, the Owl quarterback has led Westminster to consecutive victories over recent state champions Urbana (2010 Class 4A), Linganore (2009 Class 3A), and Martinsburg (2010 and 2011 Class 3A West Virginia titlists).
Against Linganore — in just three quarters of action — the Owl quarterback tied the state single-game record with seven touchdown passes while throwing for 404 yards in a 49-14 rout on Sept. 14.
"I had no idea," said Kern of the record. "After the game, I was surprised when I found out that I had over 400 passing yards, and even more surprised when I learned that I tied the state record with seven touchdowns. It was an amazing experience for me, and I know that I'm never going to forget it."
One week after his record-tying performance, Kern led the Owls to their most significant victory in years, a thrilling 36-33 win over a powerhouse Martinsburg team.
He completed 25 of 50 passes for 349 yards and five touchdowns, as Westminster bested the two-time defending West Virginia state champions and moved up to No. 5 in the state rankings of all high school football teams by maxpreps.com.
"It was huge, because we had so many people doubting us," said Kern. "But we knew that we could beat any team from any state. That was a huge milestone in our season."
The 5-11, 155-pound signal-caller leads the county in all passing categories, including completions (73), attempts (121), yardage (1,386), completion percentage (60.3), and touchdowns (22).
Despite throwing into defensive alignments that are designed exclusively to stop the pass, Kern has tossed just four interceptions. But for Kern, that's too many picks by the other team.
Owl head coach Brad Wilson, who Kern said has had the biggest impact on his football career, describes his quarterback as a perfectionist. Kern admits that he developed that quality at an early age, and it motivates him to establish high goals.
"I want to set county records, go to states this year, and try to be perfect," said Kern, who began playing football for the Westminster Wildcats at age 5. "My dad made me want to be better than I wanted to be. He wasn't going to go for anything besides me being perfect, and that was a big step in my life."
On pace to throw for more than 3,000 yards this season, Kern gets plenty of help from a collection of sure-handed and speedy receivers.
Senior Garrett Bean, who tied a state single-game record with five touchdown receptions at Linganore, averages an amazing 23.1 yards per catch and leads the county with 22 receptions for 509 yards and eight scores.
Two other seniors, Darius Clifton and Bradley Metcalf, also average better than 21 yards per reception in a Westminster offense that throws the ball more than 31 times a game. Metcalf has scored on seven of his 13 receptions. Senior Dan Johnson has been effective out of the backfield, catching 16 passes for 183 yards.
"Our offensive philosophy changed a lot this year," Kern said. "Romie was able to get out and run, and I'm not much of a runner. But I'll stay in the pocket and throw to all of my receivers, because I have confidence in every one of them. They can all do work after I throw them the ball.
"Darius is 6-3 and a huge target. Garrett Bean is probably the fastest receiver in the state, and I know that if I get the ball to him he'll make something after the catch. Brad can truck a few people downfield and get us more yards," he said.
Wilson believes the familiarity between Kern and his receivers is a major reason why the Owls' passing attack is so successful.
"These kids have been together (on varsity) since they were sophomores," Wilson said. "They've been in every seven-on-seven, and have worked to become a cohesive unit. They're dedicated and committed to what we're doing, and now they're reaping the rewards."
Kern wouldn't be able to accumulate such gaudy numbers without solid protection offered by a standout offensive line. A classic pocket passer, Kern has been sacked just eight times all season.
"The offensive line is doing an amazing job this year," he said. "They're the biggest part of our spread offense, because without them I wouldn't have time to take my drops, go through my progressions and hit my receivers like I have been."
In Westminster's pass-heavy offense, Kern knows that the pressure is on him to perform at a high level.
In an intense second half against Martinsburg, he was the definition of a clutch player. Kern completed 16 of 30 passes for 245 yards and four touchdowns in the second half alone as Westminster gamely fought off several Martinsburg comeback attempts.
"It was the greatest experience of my life," Kern said of the Martinsburg game. "Going out there and having chills on the football field, seeing my parents and all of my friends watching me, and knowing that this was such a huge game, I didn't want to let anyone down."
"I knew we had to win that game, and our team gave it everything that we could," he said. "That's all I wanted to do."
Kern also gives a maximum effort on the basketball court, where he plays point guard for the Owls.
"I like being the leader in basketball," said Kern, the son of John and Diane Kern. "Basketball also helps me with my agility and stamina, because you're always running up and down the court. It's not like football, where you run a play and then get a break."
Wilson believes that Kern's quiet leadership and poised approach helps steady both teams.
"I wouldn't say that Deryk is a very vocal leader," Wilson said. "He leads by example. He's poised in the pocket, and can make things happen with his feet. Deryk is a student of the game who understands what we need to do against every defense. He tries to get everybody involved, which has helped us tremendously."
Kern, whose intended college major is business management, would love to play NCAA Division I football next year. But he has plenty to think about before making his college decision.
Kern realizes that the Owls have a chance to go further than any Westminster team since the 2005 squad reached the Class 3A state championship game. But he isn't looking beyond the next game.
"We knew that we had a lot of potential and that there were high expectations of us, because of what last year's team did," he said.
"We're doing our best to be the best team in the state, and we all have to keep the same mind set."