Football teams typically don't proclaim their arrival following two-touchdown defeats, but the Centennial Eagles can be excused for allowing themselves a moment of chest-thumping this week.
The Eagles' 33-21 defeat Saturday by visiting South Carroll was disappointing, sure. The Eagles twice failed to protect a lead. Their defense surrendered too many big plays. Their lack of depth was exposed in the fourth quarter, when they tired in the 85-degree haze as South Carroll ran off 13 unanswered points.
But a closer look between the hash marks reveals plenty for the Eagles (1-1) to feel good about as they prepare for their final out-of-county game at North Carroll Friday night.
The Eagles' opening-day, 34-8 victory got them off to a positive start, although it came atthe expense of Catonsville, a decidedly inferior Baltimore County opponent. Saturday's loss provided a more legitimate gauge of Centennial's progress under second-year coach Ed Holshue. South Carroll, a perennial Carroll County power, was coming off a respectable 20-12 defeat against Wilde Lake.
"I asked them two things in the locker room," Holshue said. "Were they a good football team? Did we play a good game against them? The answers from everybody were yes and yes."
The encouraging signs were striking, beginning with speed. The Eagles flashed more of it than a Centennial football team has shown in at least five years.
The senior offensive backfield of fullback Brian Kujawa and tailback Sean West, which accounted for all three Centennialtouchdowns, gave Eagles fans a glimpse of what could be one of the league's more exciting tandems this fall.
Kujawa gained 43 yards onnine carries and scored a touchdown on the game's best play -- a 67-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Lawrence Holmes that Kujawa caught near midfield and turned into six points with his speed and superbuse of downfield blocking. That tied the score, 14-14, late in the second period.
West gave South Carroll more headaches. He led the Eagles with 61 yards on 16 carries, added 58 yards on two pass receptions and scored two touchdowns. The first TD was a two-yard run that opened the scoring. The second was a 46-yard pass from Holmes that gave the Eagles their last lead at 21-20 near the end of the third quarter.
In all, West and Kujawa had a hand in 235 of the Eagles' 261 yards.
Holmes, a first-year junior starter at QB, opened some eyes as well by completing six of 12 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns. His deft scrambling in the face of a good South Carroll passrush bought him enough time to find Kujawa along the left sideline for the67-yard score. His beautiful play fake to Kujawa fooled the Cavaliers so badly that West wandered wide open into the right flat, where hecaught Holmes' pass in stride and cruised into the end zone.
Defensively, the Eagles, led by linebacker Charlie Stewart (four solo tackles, eight assists) swarmed around the ball impressively early and stopped the Cavaliers for the first 18 minutes.
But South Carroll'ssenior foursome of quarterback Joe Goodwin, halfback Ronnie Robinsonand wide receivers Mike Downs (6-5) and Scott Mills (6-3) won't be kept down for long by many teams this year. Robinson eventually broke loose for 98 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries, including a 22-yard draw play that tied the game at 7-7 with 7:09 left in the firsthalf.
Goodwin was outstanding, completing 10 of 17 passes for 205yards and two touchdowns.
"It looked bad because of the big plays, but it wasn't that bad," Holshue said. "For the most part, we took away their running game. But Goodwin made the throws. They were passes no one was going to catch unless they (South Carroll receivers) caught them. The defense will improve as we go on."
Heading into a tough county schedule, the Eagles know they've come a long way in little more than a year under Holshue. Let's not forget this program was alaughingstock two years ago. Centennial went 3-17 from 1988 to 1989,a span in which the Eagles produced a paltry 1-13 mark against the county.
The Eagles went 5-5 and turned a corner last year in a season that was marred by costly mid-season injuries to punter/kicker Brian Reid (broken leg) and graduated running back Mike Rainwater (torn knee ligaments). West also spent the first half of the year battling a pulled hamstring.
West and Reid are back, as are Kujawa and fourother starters, and the Eagles are still maturing.
Saturday's mistakes, however, revealed some growing pains.
Shortly before his TDpass to West, Holmes attempted an ill-advised toss into zone defensive coverage that resulted in an interception, killing a Centennial drive at the South Carroll 25-yard line. Kujawa, who made some memorable hits from his linebacker spot, left his position too early on Robinson's 22-yard TD run.
Perhaps what stood out most about the Eagleson Saturday was their feistiness.After Centennial took a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter, South Carroll erased that margin withtwo touchdowns just four minutes apart in the second quarter. The Centennial teams of the recent past would have started thinking about their Saturday night plans at that point.
Not this group. Just one minute, 35 seconds later, Kujawa's 67-yard pass reception tied the game at 14-14 with 1:07 left in the half. Goodwin struck again a minutelater, sending the Eagles into the halftime locker room behind, 20-14, and seemingly demoralized.
But you would never have known it bythe way Centennial responded in the third quarter. After Holmes threw his interception, the Eagles got the ball right back on downs, thentook the lead on Holmes' 46-yard pass to West. The Eagles, who use seven two-way players, finally faded in the heat.
Centennial walkedoff the field a tired, disappointed, beaten team, but there was no mistaking the newfound chip on their shoulders.
"We ran the ball upand down the field on them," West said.
"I assume the best team won, but we think we'll see them again (in the playoffs). We know we're not going to win every game, but we want to prove to everyone that Centennial is a team that wants to play, a team you have to beat.
"I really feel sorry for North Carroll."