Severna Park football coach J. P. Hines said back before the season began that "it's a new era, and things need to change for the better."
No doubt, the school's football team has changed for the better in the coach's second season. For at 7: 30 tonight, Hines leads his 10-1 Falcons into Montgomery County for only the second state semifinal in the school's 40-year history.
The game at powerhouse Gaithersburg (10-1) pits the Falcons against a school with a winning tradition at the playoff level under a coach who has been around longer than Severna Park has played football.
In 43 years under coach John Harvill, the Trojans have had one losing season; they won state titles in 1986 and 1992 and were runners-up in 1989 and 1995. Severna Park has never made a state final in the sport.
Severna Park has had many good teams, but Hines aims to put the Falcons among the state's elite.
Hines, an ex-Marine, changed the gold helmets that the Falcons wore for 39 years to Navy-blue helmets with gold horns, a la the Michigan Wolverines. Hines annoyed alumni and longtime followers by saying that not playing longtime rival Annapolis in the season's final game was no big deal.
What his team, 5-5 a year ago, has done this fall is a big deal, though -- giving itself a chance to play in the school's first state championship game Thanksgiving weekend at the University of Maryland's Byrd Stadium.
Hines has built a winner with the age-old philosophy that "defense wins championships."
Severna Park linebackers David Wagner (111 tackles), Todd Soroka (131) and Jeremy Tate (72), along with the Jimmy Burney-led defensive line, has been bad news for opponents.
Gaithersburg likes to run the football with Jay Colbert, its all-time leading rusher, but can throw. Colbert, who missed last week's 30-3 quarterfinal victory over Old Mill with a bum ankle, is expected back tonight. Colbert leads the Trojans with 1,235 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns.
Quarterback Ian Hamilton has thrown only 91 times but completed 53 passes for 1,147 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Hines said he was particularly worried about the Trojans' Kevin Neubeiser, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound offensive tackle and middle linebacker.
"He's their best offensive lineman, by far, and the main cog of their defense," Hines said. "He's very quick, very fast and very, very strong."
Hines called the Trojans' offense pretty simple with fundamentally sound blocking.
"Defensively, we're going to have to show different fronts and movements and try to create some confusion," said Hines.
On offense, the Falcons will rely on running back Derek Dixon (1,260 yards, seven touchdowns) to control the football. Dixon, a workhorse, punishes tacklers with his run-through-you style.
To open things up, the Falcons look to quarterback Chris Odom, who has set school records for yards passing (1,477), completions (92 for 164) and touchdown passes (19).
Odom's favorite target is Paul Gillette, who assumes two other key roles at defensive back and place-kicker. Gillette owns school records for catches (34), receiving yards (517) and touchdowns (eight).
Defenses can't afford to worry solely about Gillette, because of Arthur Friday, the Falcons' speedy, long-ball threat. Friday has averaged 22.9 yards on 18 catches, including six touchdowns.
Gillette, who also calls defensive signals and has tied the school record for interceptions (eight), gives the Falcons an edge in the kicking game.
He has four field goals in six attempts, including last week's 24-yarder with nine seconds left to nip Watkins Mill, 15-14, in the quarterfinals, the longest 39 yards. He is nearly automatic on extra-point kicks, and his kicking can be the difference in a close game.