The county's high school football landscape changed two years ago when the Carroll County Athletic League was formed.
Carroll left the Monocacy Valley Athletic League before the start of the 2015 season and as a result, Westminster fortified its regular county schedule to include other larger schools in an attempt to garner more playoff points to benefit a potential postseason berth.
The county's largest school had a stacked schedule that included games against 3A contenders such as Oakdale, South Hagerstown, and Tuscarora. After a two-year contract of playing said schools, the Owls are making their return to Carroll contention in 2017.
"The kids feel like now it's easier to judge what we can and can't do," Westminster coach Matt Study said. "At this point, I don't care who is on our schedule, we're still going to treat it one week at a time and each game will be our biggest game of the year."
Urbana, Linganore, and South Hagerstown remain on the Owls' schedule for 2017, plus Carroll's six other schools. South Carroll was the lone Carroll opponent that remained on Westminster's schedule after it moved away from the county schedule.
Westminster's return renews a matchup against city rival Winters Mill, one that Owls junior receiver Logan Nave said he is looking forward to.
"I can remember being in middle school coming to watch my cousin Bradley [Metcalf] play against Winters Mill and it was always a huge, huge game," Nave said. "We're crosstown rivals and it's always been a big deal, so I think that's where I get my passion for that specific game. These are kids we grew up playing with and they're so close to us in terms of distance so it will be exciting to see who the best team in Westminster really is."
The Owls finished 6-4 this season in a turnaround after earning just three wins in 2015.
"The thing we want to establish is mental toughness and to play gritty and be able to dig down to play those complete games," Study said. "By playing the teams we have for the last two years, there were a lot of lessons learned. When we go over and play predominant Frederick County teams, you have to figure out that you're going to play for four quarters.
"There was a sense of urgency and our kids responded to that by hitting the weights harder and devoting time to the offseason. Coming back to the county, we'll take those lessons with us. Carroll County has never won a state title in football and if we're going to do that, these teams have to come in with a different mindset."
The scheduling alignment contracts are generally made for at least two years with the opportunity of renewal so that each team can play an opponent at home and away at least once. Westminster athletic director Terry Molloy said football generates the most revenue for the athletic departments, but when some of the Owls' opponents came to Ruby Field they didn't bring much of a fan base.
Returning to a Carroll schedule should help boost those numbers, Molloy said.
Carroll saw two teams, Century and Liberty, reach the playoffs in 2016, but both were eliminated after regional semifinal losses to Walkersville and Middletown. The Lions went undefeated in county play and captured their first county title outright since 2001.
Manchester Valley joined Westminster in Class 3A West after the closure of North Carroll at the end of the 2016 school year — Century, Francis Scott Key, Liberty, South Carroll, and Winters Mill occupy 2A West.
"Do I think coming back to play these schools is going to hurt us? Right now, I don't think it will," Study said. "With a potential realignment, I don't think it will. Manchester Valley is 3A now and if something changes with the playoff system, which I'm hoping it does for a lot of the teams, including us, then it doesn't affect us."
Carroll has plenty of time to readjust to Westminster's return. And in the meantime, the Owls say they are ready to get back to work.
"I give a lot of credit to our seniors," Nave said. "When I was a freshman on varsity, I didn't really have a voice with those seniors back then but it's totally different this year. We've got Colby Jardim, Dylan Lane, et cetera, and they all had a voice to push us in practices and the weight room. For the underclassmen and myself, I feel like we have a really good tone set for next season, there are kids already ready to get into the weight room and speed camps.
"We weren't happy with the way our season turned out, and I think next year the county better buckle down for a ride because we're coming back."
Odds and ends
Century senior Anthony Perrone finished his high school career as the Knights' all-time leader in receptions (94) and interceptions (9). Perrone and Jake Lettiere, also a senior, are second and third on Century's time career receiving yards list. Perrone has 1,192 yards; Lettiere has 1,190.
Senior linebacker Henry Cook broke two South Carroll tackling records this season. His 152 tackles led Carroll, and his career total came to 361. Cook is the Cavs' all-time leader in single-season and career tackles.
SC teammate Jamar Williams led the county with 1,642 rushing yards — second on South Carroll's all-time single-season list. The senior running back's 2,339 total rushing yards is good for second behind Chris Gavin (3,027).
Williams also became the first Carroll County running back to rush for 300-plus yards more than once through the course of a season.
Winters Mill sophomore quarterback Alex Barnes threw for a county-best 1,933 yards this fall, the third best single-season performance in Falcons history. Only Ben Love, who threw for a pair of 2,000-yard seasons, has more than Barnes. The sophomore's total also places him third all-time behind Love (4,599) and Liam Butler (3,322).