When he became head coach of a brand-new Hampstead Ravens 6-8 youth football team three years ago, Chris Harper's first priority was to teach his little ones the fundamentals of football. Winning could come later.
Judging from what has happened since, he taught them pretty well.
A few weeks ago at Howard County's Blandair Regional Park, Hampstead finished its cruise to a second consecutive Mid-Maryland Youth Football League championship. It beat Reisterstown, 24-0 to win the League's Centennial Division ages 8-10 Super Bowl.
In fact, the Ravens shut out all three of this year's playoff opponents after completing a 9-0 regular season.
Harper credits his four assistants, Kevin Heffner, Barry Roysdon, Jeff Seese and Mark Stewart, for helping him him lay out the specifics of blocking and tackling for the kids.
Harper's philosophy of football success is simple. He says, "the more you focus on fundamentals, the better the team."
It took awhile for his Ravens to learn them. They won only twice that first year.
But once they digested those fundamentals, the youngsters' rise was meteoric. In their second season, 2012, they improved to 7-3 in the Centennial Division and made it as far as the postseason semifinals.
Last year, they won the Division Super Bowl for ages 7-9 teams. Not content with just one title, they entered the state championship youth football tournament sponsored by National Gridiron 365 and won that, too.
Coming into this year, Harper saw no reason why his youngsters couldn't repeat in the MMYFL.
"I'm a demanding coach," Harper declared. "We practiced three nights a week from July through the end of the season. If you play disciplined football and execute your plays, you will win. They bought into that. By the time these boys stepped on the field [this season], they were in their element, and they were ready to play."
They won their first five games by a combined score of 172-6 and racked up four straight shutouts. Then came a toughie against Reisterstown, a game which, looking back, Harper was glad to see.
"It was a wake-up for our boys. Reisterstown had a 60-yard touchdown run on their first possession. That gave our boys a jolt," he said.
However, his kids rallied. Their defense stopped Reisterstown after that, and they fought to a hard-earned 20-14 victory.
"We held them to negative yardage in the second half. They had only two big plays on us" Harper said.
Their next game was against Arbutus, another tough team. The Ravens won that one, 20-6. The final two games were easy wins, and Hampstead had a perfect 9-0 regular season.
Harper credited the defense for much of his team's success. Two years ago, the 7-3 team scored a lot of points but also gave up a lot.
Last year, the Ravens scored 490 points in 16 regular season games and gave up only 60. Scoring was down this year; the team output dropped to 298 although that led the league. But its defense allowed only a miserly 32, also a league-leading performance.
"We scout the other teams. Then we run the other team's plays for 30 minutes each practice. We get to know who the other team's best players are," Harper related.
He added, "we have an aggressive defense. They are sure tacklers."
He noted that another strong point is his team's depth; every player knows his job.
"We have more depth than in years past. We bring in substitutes who play as well as the starters. And most players can play more than one position," Harper explained.
And because most of their games were easy wins, those substitutes got to play a lot of football and contribute this year.
"We had 13 or 14 kids who ran the ball, and most scored touchdowns" Harper noted by example.
That defensive dominance which typified the regular season carried over to the playoffs.
The Ravens totally dominated their first playoff game, winning a 41-0 romp over Westminster. They forced two turnovers and led, 28-0, at intermission. The big lead gave coaches the chance to use a lot of running backs who don't normally didn't get much of an opportunity.
"I had one back who hadn't run the ball all year, but he ran all over the place. He got 90 yards in the second half," Harper recalled.
Arbutus provided a tough, physical test in the next game. However the Ravens met the test. They pulled to a 16-0 halftime lead and went on to win, 22-0.
The championship game saw Reisterstown take the ball on its opening possession and move to the Hampstead 10-yard line. But the defense stiffened and pushed the Mustangs back. Later the Ravens scored a touchdown and led, 8-0, at halftime.
They broke through for two more scores in the second half, and the defense remained impregnable. When the final gun sounded, Harper's Ravens had their third consecutive playoff shutout.
"I went into the championship game with the knowledge that the boys would win. They can win anytime they step on the field if they play disciplined football," Harper said.
But championships aren't the biggest reward for their coach.
"For me, the reward is watching the look in the kids' eyes," he said. "It is rewarding for me to see how happy they are [when they win]. It is awesome to see the boys work their tails off all season, three times a week, and then win."
He says he looks forward to next fall even though his Ravens move up to the 9-11 bracket and the challenge of older opponents.