Last year, Mike Working inherited a Mount St. Joseph squad that returned just three starters from a team that was 3-7 the year before, with a sophomore quarterback, Lucas Phillips, being the only returning offensive player.
But despite facing six ranked teams over their nine-game schedule, the Gaels averaged just under 40 points in going 8-1, losing only to 1993 MIAA champ McDonogh, 21-18, and sharing the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association title with Gilman.
This year, Working has 16 starters back, nine of whom return on offense with Phillips, who comes off a 1,776 yard, 17-touchdown campaign. The second-year coach also is looking at a corps of linemen who average 245 pounds offensively, and 235 defensively.
"They're the complete package," said Patterson's Roger Wrenn, whose 4A state semifinalists scrimmaged the Gaels. "They throw exceptionally well, they run exceptionally well, and they play solid defense. They'd be my preseason No. 1."
And they looked good yesterday, defeating Good Counsel of Montgomery County, 30-20, in their opener. Phillips was 14 of 28 for 238 yards passing. Archie Wannamaker rushed for 131 yards on 19 carries and had four touchdowns.
Last week, before the opener, Working said flatly: "We're going to be good.
"We have a lot of kids who are committed to team play and Mount St. Joseph football, and they are very competitive in practice, going 100 percent against each other," said Working, last year's Baltimore Sun All-Metro Coach of the Year. "We had 40 kids go to at least one football camp, and as many as three go to 15 camps. They really like doing what they're doing, and they're having fun."
Working, 47, transferred to Mount St. Joseph in spring 1994 from McDonogh, where he went 2-8, 7-3 and 9-0 over three seasons.
So the rise has been quicker at St. Joseph, and it looks like this year's squad is the area's best.
"It's been a long time, matter of fact since about the mid-'70s, that we've had a quality team like this," said athletic director Paul Triplett, the Gaels' wrestling coach for the past nine years and a 1979 graduate of the school. "I think there's a lot of anticipation and expectations to repeat as champs or do better."
Most of the attraction centers around Phillips, a Brooklyn Park resident who was sacked just once in the Gaels' final game of last year against Loyola. It seems Phillips will get plenty of protection from massive linemen such as DeVaughan Mellerson (6-4, 247), Riverdale Baptist transfer Ben Dyer (6-5, 272) and tight ends Gary Moore (6-3, 208) and Loren Phillips (6-3, 195).
The 6-foot-2, 178-pound junior has thrived in Working's nickel offense: three wide receivers, a tight end and one running back. Last year, he completed most of his passes to Danny Rosewag, a 5-8, 155-pound second-team All-Metro pick who finished with 934 receiving yards and 10 touchdown receptions.
Rosewag also returned four punts for touchdowns, but the primary rushing threat this year is running back Wannamaker (5-9, 172), who runs a 4.5-second 40-yard --. Wannamaker rushed for 1,009 yards and scored 11 touchdowns last year.
For Mount St. Joseph, ranked No. 4 at season's end, Phillips has thrown for 2,823 yards and 23 career touchdowns through yesterday's game. He is well within striking distance of the state career passing yardage record (5,826) set by McDonogh's Bobby Sabelhaus (now a freshman at the University of Florida).
And it would be fitting for Phillips to surpass the record, because Sabelhaus was groomed by Working over his first two seasons.
"Lucas has a very quick release and it's very hard to trap him, and that's not because of purely getting protection," said Working. "He's got the knowledge, and he's had a whole year with a new system. He's a lot stronger and more accurate and he's got all the combinations to be an effective high school quarterback."