It's an overcast afternoon at Westminster High School and the Owls are getting their second practice of the day underway — it's sort of like a family reunion, coach Matt Study said.
His coaching staff is excited, for one thing, and his players are just as enthusiastic. It's hard to avoid such feelings at the start of a new football season, and the Owls are bringing their talent back to Carroll contention after a two-year fortified schedule that included games against Class 3A contenders such as Linganore, Oakdale, Tuscarora, and South Hagerstown.
When Carroll left the Monocacy Valley Athletic League to form the Carroll County Athletic League two years ago, Westminster adjusted its schedule to include larger schools in an attempt to garner more points in hopes of securing a playoff berth. South Carroll was the lone county team that remained on Westminster's schedule, and the Owls concluded the 2016 season with a 40-0 romp over the Cavaliers to finish 6-4.
Having missed out on the playoffs the past two seasons in addition to missing out on the chance to compete for a county championship, the Owls are once again playing every other team in Carroll, including crosstown rival Winters Mill.
"It's always fun to mix it up with kids that might live, in some cases, across the street or played against each other in rec leagues," Study said. "I'm sure that adds a definite dimension to what they want to do and compete with. We're excited, and again, it doesn't matter who we play. We want to treat it week by week and we want to try and control our own destiny."
Study is in his ninth season with the Owls' program and his third as head coach, having previously served under longtime coach Brad Wilson as an assistant. The Owls are also competing in the gritty 3A West Region.
The Owls lost 2016 Times first-team all-countians Dylan Lane, Jaime Rodriguez, Colby Jardim, and Kenton VanderWoude to graduation. Rodriguez and Lane helped secure the Owls' line, linebacker Jardim led the Owls in tackles, and VanderWoude hauled in 11 touchdowns as the team's leading receiver last year.
Returning are fellow all-countians Zane Lewis, a four-year starter for the Owls who had 38 receptions last season, and Ryan Clatterbuck, the team's interceptions leader in 2016.
"I'm super pumped because of all the talent we have," Lewis said. "I think we have a lot of potential with huge chances to go very far."
Senior tight end Logan Nave, senior lineman Noah Boguski, and senior all-purpose athlete Chase Birdow are also back to increase Westminster's depth in multiple areas.
Look for the Owls to take the field with their spread offense and "aggressive" defense this season. Study said getting the ball into their best players' hands is of vital importance, but starters in those key positions are yet to be decided.
"It's a lot of competition, it's highly competitive which is great," Study said. "It's going to be, in several spots on this team, a very small margin of error to decide who will be named that starter. It's going to be a battle and we're finding that out."
The Owls open at Urbana — coached by Brad Wilson — on Friday night at 7.
After that, six of their remaining games are against Carroll foes and the Owls are more than ready to renew local rivalries.
"It's fun especially because I know a lot of the guys that wrestle for other schools in the county and they play football, too," senior lineman Chris Hoffman said. "It's cool to be able to play your friends and to have that stuff go back and forth on Twitter, like mini NFL stars. It's fun and I'm looking forward to it, I'm glad we did make the switch before I graduated so we're happy about that."