Simply put, 2014 was a special season for Howard football. Undefeated in county play, 4A North region champions, 12-1 overall and a state semifinal appearance for the first time since 1999.
Lions coach Bruce Strunk, now entering his eighth season at the helm, admits as much.
"It was real special. When we started the season we knew we had some talent, but I didn't think we thought we were that good," Strunk said. "As the season went on, I didn't see how our team could ever lose. They just played to win and had the right attitude. We had some good players, but we had a lot of kids who just did their jobs. The kids just played together. ... That was a special group."
This fall, however, Howard won't be surprising anybody, including itself. The Lions graduated 31 players, but do return some of the top playmakers in the county. With 20 wins over the last two seasons, expectations are to remain the team to beat in Howard County.
It just won't be easy.
"We were the best team in the county last year, hands down. Even in some of the games we didn't score, we should've. This year, you can't count out any teams. It's going to be a season of matchups," Strunk said. "Is Oakland Mills' defensive line and speed going to be able to slow down Glenelg's massive line? I think there's a lot of parity depending on who plays each other. I wouldn't be surprised if 7-3 is the county champion. That's what I see this year."
For Howard to repeat as county champions, it will need to fill the voids left by last year's Defensive Player of the Year Winston DeLattiboudere, who is playing for University of Minnesota, and first-team all-county quarterback Kevin Sheehan, among other standouts.
Look no further than Malik Anderson, a returning first-team all-county wide receiver and undoubtedly one of the biggest offensive threats in Howard County, to help shoulder a big portion of the load. Pair him with new starting quarterback, senior Casey Crawford and returning first-team all-county lineman Steve McNair, and the Lions offense looks like it may not miss a beat.
"Malik, I think he's very dynamic. I wouldn't trade him for anybody because he's a character kid and very talented. Dynamically speaking, I think Malik is a game-changer," Strunk said. "Casey is the best quarterback in regards to throwing the ball, and in my 15 years of coaching, I've never had a better one. He's got a gun. He can throw 40 yards on a rope. That being said, there's a lot he needs to learn about playing football, but he's a quick study."
The success story that is Howard football has been an interesting one to watch over the last several seasons. The Lions have always had the talent, but Strunk said the change over time has been the development of team chemistry and change in culture.
"I think the nucleus is going to be there (in upcoming years). I've been a coach a long time, but I think at Howard chemistry drives the team, not talent," Strunk said. "Last year, I've had more talented teams than that, but there was no chemistry. ... In the seven years I've been here, we've been to the playoffs four times. I don't see any reason to change the growth of our program. I think kids are getting it, and in year's past kids were putting more focus on themselves rather than the team, and I think the culture is now there that most of them get it. We're playing as a team."
On June 26, Howard County and the Atholton football program suffered a tragedy with the death of head coach Damion Cook. His passing shocked many, and this year's Raiders team will be playing this season in his honor.
No coach may know how to do that any better than Cook's best friend and former assistant coach Bruce Cummings, who is taking over as head coach at his alma mater.
"Me and Damion, we were best friends. ... We definitely hit it off (as coaches together at Centennial), and we were talking the same things football wise, so we had a great relationship," Cummings said. "Now that he's not here, I want to finish what he started here at Atholton."
Cummings played at Atholton from 1998 to 2002 and joined the football team at Bowie State. An injury, however, kept him from getting the chance to play at that level. He coached at Centennial for five years before joining Cook at Atholton last season, and he has also been the head coach of the Baltimore Warhawks, a semi-pro team in Baltimore, for more than a year.
Cummings hopes to use the experience and knowledge he has gained through that job and translate it to the Raiders program.
"That's what I want to bring to the program — having a program feel," Cummings said. "I want to turn it into a football program where we're known kind of like River Hill. We definitely have the talent at this school, I just think it's about having consistency at the head coaching spot, which they haven't had in the last five or six years."
Another former Centennial coach, Carlos Dunmoodie, has taken the reigns of the Eagles program after leading the school's JV team last season. He replaces Todd Kriner, who was head coach at Centennial for four years.
Dunmoodie played JV football at Poly in Baltimore City before coaching a youth program and eventually coached at his alma mater for four years. He moved to Centennial before last season.
The Eagles failed to win a game in 2014, but Dunmoodie has his sights set on changing the culture and bringing the program back to prominence.
"Morale is everything. The kids have to understand that sometimes you have a down season. The most important thing is to establish some sort of confidence within yourself as a coach and the kids will respond to you," Dunmoodie said. "I want to make sure they understand that we have their best interest at heart and we will put them in the best position to be successful. Obviously there needs to be a culture change, so I want to be positive. We don't talk about negative aspects."
Dunmoodie knows it may take a few years to build his program, but he is in it for the long haul.
"Anything better than last year is progressing," he said.