Reeling from a 43-0 thrashing at the hands of Douglass during last season's Class 2A state semifinals, there was much that coach Steve Luette's South Carroll football team chose to learn from such an experience.
Even if the Cavaliers had one of the top running backs in the state in Chris Gavin, the difference between the two programs — from size and speed to performance — made it clear which was the superior group.
"Other than Middletown a few years ago, you couldn't play a better team than Frederick Douglass," Luette said at the end of an afternoon practice two weeks ago. "I think that's the best football team I've ever seen."
One of the things that stuck with many of the returning players from that Cavaliers roster was how big and strong those Eagles were. Determined not to meet a similar fate this year, the weight room became their sanctuary during the offseason.
As he has done in his previous six seasons, Luette allows his seniors to take control at the end of practices and run their own routine. Knowing what they are up against this season, it was no surprise to find a few South Carroll players barking at their teammates after their coach broke practice. They weren't done just yet. There were still a mandatory 50 push-ups to complete.
"When we faced Frederick Douglass last year, we definitely saw what a big offensive line can do," said Steven Stockslager, who enters his third year as a starter up front for the Cavaliers. "We've been in the weight room all summer long, and we're all coming back stronger — way stronger than last season — and everyone's looking to push guys around and create holes for our running back."
Over the summer Stockslager took part in the inaugural CCPS High School Powerlifting Meet, which he won. He's listed at 6-feet, 250 pounds this season. Like the rest of the Cavaliers starting line, he's put on muscle mass over the offseason.
Maryland commit Brian Plummer, possibly the biggest lineman in Carroll County this season, comes in at 6-foot-7, 320 pounds. Lucas Peck (5-10, 240) and Jason Money (6-3, 275) round out a larger front that should protect junior quarterback AJ Linn, as well as running back Steven Baca.
Operating as Gavin's understudy last season, Baca still managed to accrue 438 yards on 68 attempts for six touchdowns. Look for junior Jamar Williams to be a dynamic pass-catching back as well.
"I think it's going to be a mix of the line, and the passing game is going to be really rejuvenated this season," Baca said. "We're going to have all the facets working together."
As opposed to last year's signal-caller, Andrew Louder, whom South Carroll's Silas Kelly referred to as "such a natural athlete that he really didn't belong at quarterback," Linn is much more of a pocket passer. That should put Kelly's skills on display as a receiver (he's also committed to Maryland, but as a defensive back), as well as Patrick Kelly and Brent McPherson.
"We've got experienced receivers, and [Linn] doesn't have to be precise," Luette said. "His guys can catch the ball. It's just got to be near them and he can throw it. His pass can be off a little bit, but as long as it's not off a little bit the wrong way, we'll be all right because our receivers can adjust to the ball."
The Cavaliers lose a lot on defense after graduating first-team all-countian Wade Slatniske, who led Carroll in tackles last year. Luette, however, thinks the team will be just as powerful with Henry Cook stepping into the middle linebacker role. His 112 tackles earned him a second-team all-county nod. Talmadge Eller will come off the corner from the line again this season after recording 73 tackles and seven sacks in 2014. Both Silas and Patrick Kelly will roam the secondary, along with Williams.
Size and speed alone won't help South Carroll defend its county championship. But, with that offseason training regimen expanded, many of those potential impact players think it will at least get them back in the conversation. And they aren't worrying about expectations past that.
"We've always had a target on our back. We just keep working," Silas Kelly said. "We stay to ourselves. We know we're a family, and we know we're a team. Teams are going to put that target on our back. We just hold ourselves to a higher standard."