Is this high school football at Fallston?
Where, for the longest time, the Cougars have been better known for just playing hard and keeping games close? Where the talent pool hasn't quite equaled that of perennial powers Aberdeen and C. Milton Wright? Where the chance of making the state playoffs is a distant memory?
Yes, this is Fallston football. But, oh, this is different. The Cougars haven't been undefeated -- 8-0 overall, 5-0 league -- this late in the season in Dave Cesky's 23 years as coach.
Positioned to win their first county title and postseason appearance with two games left, the 15th-ranked Cougars have upstaged the Harford County League, thanks to a running game that averages 266 yards a game and a defense that has finally risen to the occasion.
"During summer practice, we knew this team was good," Cesky said. "We moved along quickly with the defense, and the offense just had the personnel."
With 15 holdovers from last season's 5-5 team, Cesky believed that changing the course of this season wouldn't be about strategy; rather, it would be about how Fallston plays.
Now, the Cougars run hard, block hard and tackle hard.
No Cougars are more in sync with that approach than senior Nate Liebel. Fallston's run-happy offense relies on a fullback such asLiebel, who at 6 feet, 240 pounds, clears the way for running backs Keith Clark and Dave Gonano. Clark and Gonano have combined for more than 1,600 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.
Fallston's offense has emerged as the league's best (2,502 total yards, 2,135 of them rushing), indicating that quarterback Jake Kuzma deserves credit, too. Although Kuzma throws fewer than 10 passes a game, his decision-making has been precise in the Cougars' wishbone attack.
"Every play is a fake to one running back or a play-action pass routine," said Cesky. "The other option is for him to run."
Liebel is part of the team's defensive turn-around, too. With his hard hits at middle linebacker and play, especially, of defensive ends Ben Landers and Jesse Kluttz, the Cougars have shed their reputation of being soft and vulnerable in big games. Ask Aberdeen or Wright, which Fallston defeated for the first time since 1993 and 1987, respectively.
The Cougars thwarted Aberdeen's running game of sweeps and end-arounds in a 20-8 win. The Mustangs, whom Fallston beat 28-21, could not run up the middle and were forced to throw, which resulted in a late interception the Cougars turned into the winning touchdown.
"Everybody had a negative outlook toward us, and we knew we were better than that," said Kluttz. "We knew that C. Milton Wright was the make-or-break game for us if we wanted to make the playoffs."
Said defensive line coach Steve Salters: "We knew we had the talent up front, but we had to make plays. Teams try to hit us outside in the flat, but our end play has been outstanding."
Fallston's defense, which has allowed 21 points in a game only twice, ranks second to North Harford in total yards allowed (230.1 average) over five league games.
"We have a more positive outlook this year," Landers said. "And we definitely have the heart, something we've never really had."
The Cougars' reinvented defense includes the secondary, which is three interceptions shy of the single-season school record of 18.
Cesky might have worried how his team would handle such foreign territory. Not so now. The Cougars have overcome doubt and adversity.
"From the second game of the season, when we stopped Elkton near the goal line at the end of the game, we've been building confidence," Cesky said. "And things have just fallen into place."
But the biggest challenge still lies ahead.
A win tonight at Havre de Grace will clinch at least a tie for the Cougars' first county title and a likely Class 3A playoff berth. Their last regular-season game will be against North Harford.