Cans of soda popped open. The sound of back-slapping echoed off the walls. And smiles decorated every face in the locker room.
Howard High hadn't had a chance to celebrate a county football championship since 1975, but didn't have to be told how following Friday night's 46-0 victory over Mount Hebron that clinched the title.
The county championship trophy -- an ordinary-looking oblong brown plaque with a gold metal football player attached -- was passed from upraised hand to upraised hand as if it were a religious icon. Every player and coach just wanted to touch it once. A few even kissed it.
Only one player on this year's team, Curtis McTavish, was even )) hTC born when Howard won its last title.
But they've heard stories about the Howard dynasty that won 47 straight games -- the state's longest winning streak -- before finally losing in the 1975 state championship game.
In December 1975, Howard coach John Quinn was a starting lineman for Penn State, which lost to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Quinn, who took over the helm at Howard eight years ago, calls the county title "phase one" of what he hopes will be another season like 1974.
The nucleus of this group of 30 players has shown steady improvement through four years, starting with a 5-5 record three years ago, progressing to 7-3 in 1992 and achieving a 9-1 mark so far this season. There are 16 seniors and they say they are planning to win a state championship -- no matter how tough the competition.
They thought they could win a county championship last season, but freaky mistakes prevented it. Their three losses were by a total of 12 points.
There are several reasons for this year's improvement. The chief difference is at quarterback, where Dalawn Parrish played a full season. The Lions won their last five games after Parrish took over in 1992.
"Parrish was the difference this year," Quinn said. "He steps up big every time we need him."
Take the 21-14 Atholton victory, for instance. With the score tied and 28 seconds left, Parrish was hit and apparently stopped at the goal line. But he extended his arms and put the ball in the end zone to finish a 5-yard touchdown run.
He typifies a Howard team that does whatever it takes to win.
In the season's most crucial game, Howard trailed Hammond 7-0 at the start of the fourth quarter.
Then, defensive lineman Seth Eldridge, described by teammates the heart of the team, recovered a fumble at Hammond's 14-yard line.
Star running back Guy Smith bolted for a touchdown despite a badly bruised shoulder.
And holder Carlton Fox improvised off a high snap on the extra-point kick attempt by passing to Scott Strother for a two-point conversion that won the game, 8-7.
"Hammond was our toughest game," Eldridge said. "They really bruised us up."
The Lions' defensive secondary has improved with the addition of Parrish, who leads the team with five interceptions. McTavish, Fox and Brian Bush are holdovers. Bush and Fox have four interceptions apiece and McTavish has three.
Three Howard linebackers -- Turrae Jones, Tyson Daves and Corey Curtis -- have returned interceptions for touchdowns.
Andy Holloway, who kicked a 46-yard field goal against Mount Hebron Friday, has made special teams a strength. Holloway averages 52 yards on kickoffs and 39 yards on punts.
And Howard has returned three punts for touchdowns. McTavish has an 80-yarder, Curtis has one for 54 yards and Fox got one Friday for 25 yards.
Quinn credits defensive coordinator Jerome Jefferson for making Howard's defense especially strong. The Lions have allowed only 69 points and have given up more than two touchdowns only once (in an 18-15 loss to Centennial in the league-opener).
"Centennial was our wake-up call," tackle Matt Allen said.
McTavish said, "We underestimated them and expected them to quit but they made the big plays."
Howard has shown the most improvement during the season in its offensive line, which lost four starters from last year.
"The offensive line was shaky until the last few games," Allen said.
That line took pride in Smith's surpassing the 1,000-yard rushing mark in Friday's game.
"Helping Guy get 1,000 yards was one of our goals," Eldridge said.
Howard has pushed the concept of team unity and walks onto the field before each game hand-in-hand in a straight line for introductions. A strong bench also has played a role.
"We have to fight to keep our jobs every week," McTavish said.
Fox lost his defensive job for two weeks because he practiced poorly one week.
"If you mess up, Coach J [Jefferson] says, name, number, job gone," Fox said. "Our subs could start for most teams."
Speed is Howard's hallmark and gives the Lions tremendous confidence. Strother runs the 40-yard -- in 4.4 seconds, Smith and McTavish in 4.5 and Fox and Bush in 4.6.
A balanced offense that can run or throw leads the county with 269 points.
Smith, who has his second-straight 1,000-yard season, is respected as the hardest-working player on the team.
"He made everyone around him better," Fox said. "He made us want to lift weights because we saw how much bigger and stronger he got by lifting."
Strother said, "It feels good just to play in the same backfield with him [Smith]. He constantly inspires me to do better."
The Lions are hoping they can stay inspired for the three more weeks it will take to win a state title.