Reloading is a common theme for high school sports teams. Student athletes graduate and are replaced by their former backups or junior varsity players ready for the varsity level. Achieving steady, year-in and year-out success is easier said than done with the amount of turnover and inability to recruit like colleges or private schools, yet several Howard County high school football teams — namely Howard, Glenelg and River Hill — have found the recipe in recent years.
Rebuilding is also familiar rhetoric among high school sports teams. And it's the difference between reloading and rebuilding that is what often separates teams that make deep playoff runs and those that don't.
Centennial has all but redefined what it means to rebuild, considering its varsity team disbanded for the 2017 season. The Eagles, however, will return to the field this fall under the guidance of new head coach Billy Martin.
But the loss of 31 seniors and all but one defensive starter has left Howard coach Ross Hannon pondering what most teams question before the start of a new season: Are we rebuilding or reloading?
"Our second question may answer the first question: Who are our leaders?" Hannon added. "We have worked hard to 'keep the main thing, the main thing.' We have a great core of returning players who know our system and we are excited for their opportunities this season."
Even with the lingering uncertainty, the consensus among county coaches is that the Lions, who have won 42 of their last 43 regular season games against league opponents dating back to Oct. 18, 2013, are still the team to beat this season. The four-time defending county and 4A North regional champions return dynamic running back Devin Dawkins, last year's Howard County Times Offensive Player of the Year, and have continuity among the coaching staff with Hannon entering his second year at the helm.
Dawkins, a senior who has had 399 carries for 3,271 yards and 47 touchdowns and averaged 8.2 yards per carry in his two varsity seasons, is expected to have an expanded role offensively and defensively this season. Hannon said he could even see some time at quarterback.
"We're going to move Devin all around the field. We're going to utilize him," Hannon said. "Devin is talented and he can do everything: catch the ball out of the backfield and he's a great blocker. I don't think he gets very much credit for that. We also know we've got some pieces and we know he can also help open up some things for some other kids."
There are a lot of unknowns defensively, however. First-team All-County linebacker Ben Stephanos will miss the season after undergoing shoulder surgery, which makes senior defensive lineman Jake Wrisk the only returning starter on the unit. Still, the talent pool that the Lions have at their disposal as the county's only 4A school will keep them at or near the top of the standings.
"I feel confident that we're going to get off the bus and we're going to be a tough out," Hannon said. "We've got some potential, we've got some talent; we've got a little bit of everything. What it's really going to be about is chemistry and jelling together."
One county team that is undoubtedly reloading is Glenelg, which is the last county team to beat Howard. The Gladiators have a senior-laden roster that is primed for another deep playoff run — and possibly their first county title since 2013.
Glenelg has won three regional titles in its last four seasons and has earned five straight playoff appearances but has not won a county title since going 9-1 in 2013. This season, coach Butch Schaffer's squad returns eight starters on offense, many of which were key contributors to the 2017 team that went 8-4 overall and upset top-seeded River Hill in the 2A South region playoff semifinals.
No returner will be more important than senior running back Wande Owens — the 2016 Howard County Times Offensive Player of the Year — who has a chance to break the all-time Howard County career rushing record this fall. With 3,674 career rushing yards, Owens needs 1,039 yards to pass River Hill's Michael Campanaro (4,712) and 1,422 yards to break the record held by Wilde Lake's Raphael Wall, who gained 5,095 yards from 1987 to 1990. Dawkins needs 1,825 yards to surpass Wall.
"As a team, we have a lot of potential, and we can really shake things up in the county," said Owens, who this fall will see more time as a defensive back, the position he will play collegiately. "Since we've been in like the third, fourth or fifth spot the past couple of years, maybe we can get to the first spot in the county. That's what I want: a county title."
He's not the only skill player back for 2018. Seniors Tyler Reiff (QB), Sam Alsheimer (RB/FB) and Eric Gruber (WR), as well as four offensive linemen — Griffin Doyle, CJ Davidson, Otto Trawick and Mike Sedraykan — also return for Glenelg.
Glenelg football coach Butch Schaffer discusses his top returning players, team expectations and more on Day 1 of the fall sports season on Aug. 8, 2018. (Kyle Stackpole / BSMG)
River Hill is in a similar situation as Howard. The Hawks graduated 21 seniors and the majority of their playmakers from their 2017 squad that went 9-0 in the regular season and shared the county title with the Lions. Defensively, however, they should be among the league's best once again with the return of four starters, including junior defensive back Beau Brade, a two-time All-County selection, and senior linebacker Spencer Brockdorff.
Replacing four players who ran for at least 481 yards last year will be key for their offense. Brade is expected to among their three running-back formation, as will junior Jordan Perry, who was the leading rusher for Long Reach's JV team last fall, and sophomore Zach Igwebe, who earned playing time last year as a freshman. An improved offensive line will ease the transition in the backfield, which includes senior quarterback Robby Windsor. He will supplant Luke Champion, a second-team All-County pick last year.
"We have more experience, size and strength on the offensive line this year," Van Deusen said. "We hope that our line can control the line of scrimmage early in the season as our backfield gains experience and improves each week. We have the potential to be very good defensively. We are strong up the middle and have good team speed."
Two other playoff teams from last year, Atholton and Long Reach, expect to compete for playoff spots again in the 3A East region.
The Raiders return nine starters overall, including several playmakers. Senior running back Melvin Brown was the fourth leading rusher in the county last year with 933 yards and will carry the load offensively, while linebacker Cole Jefferson was fifth in the league last year in sacks with 5.5 and will headline a solid defensive unit.
Atholton senior Cole Jefferson talks about the Raiders' team and players to watch this fall. (Tim Schwartz / BSMG video)
The Lightning lost 28 seniors from last year's regional championship squad but expect another shot at the title this year with the contributions of several newcomers. Their JV team went 8-0 last year with quarterback Eric Benesch throwing for 972 yards and 13 touchdowns. He is expected to start under center on varsity. Senior Jeremy Huffman will be the signal caller again at linebacker and is among the best defensive players in the county.
Two 4-5 teams from a year ago, Marriotts Ridge and Reservoir, expect improvement this season.
The Mustangs have a solid starting unit but lack the depth to survive many injuries, according to coach Marcus Lewis. Senior Robinson Davis, who was a second-team All-County defensive back last year, will start at quarterback. Kameron Young returns at running back after rushing for 516 yards as a freshman.
The Gators have 11 returning starters overall and have "a mix of returning starters, contributors and fresh faces from our JV program," coach Bryan Cole said. Senior offensive lineman Trenton Baker is back for his third varsity season and will pave the way for senior running back Marcus Pendleton in Reservoir's run-heavy offense. Baker and Pendleton will also be key on defense.
As for teams that finished near the bottom of the 2017 standings, coaches believe Wilde Lake has the most potential for a big move up the board after going 1-8 last year.
The Wildecats have depth at several key positions, most notably on the offensive line, which has an average size of 6-foot and 265 pounds, according to coach Michael Harrison. They also boast one of the best athletes in the county in senior Osita Smith. The 2017 first-team All-County selection did it all for Wilde Lake last year and has numerous Division-I offers.
Defensively, Harrison says his team will return to form after allowing nearly 25 points per game last season. Seven starters return on that side of the ball.
Elsewhere around the league, Mt. Hebron has a new coach for the second straight year, as Jack Kinloch succeeds Mike McCarthy. Kinloch said the focus has been on getting the school's best athletes to play football, which has helped participation increase by about 25 percent.
Oakland Mills also has seen an increase in participation this fall, which has coach Tom Browne excited for his team's potential. Senior Deashawn Eaton will be the Scorpions' go-to wide receiver after amassing 729 yards and a county-best 63 receptions last season. Junior Kai Castle will be a dual-threat quarterback for the Scorpions' up-tempo offense.
"We have several wrestlers and basketball players, which makes a good mix of tough kids and very athletic skill kids," Browne said. "However, it will take some time for a lot of the new faces to jell and be ready to compete at a high level for the start of the season."
Hammond coach Shawn Frederick said his team is coming off its best offseason to date and returns three starters on offense and defense. And as for Centennial, Martin said he has no expectations for his team this year. The goal is to simply build from the ground up and field a varsity team the entire season.
"We will take the season week by week and do what is necessary to put ourselves in as best a position as possible to be successful," Martin said.
Long Reach senior Jeremy Huffman talks about his team's expectations this fall and more. (Tim Schwartz / BSMG video)