As a hundred or so pairs of feet kicked dust off the dirt patches and into the humidity at City's stadium field, the repeated clash of helmets and grinding of pads was a welcome sound for the Knights' football players during a recent early evening practice.
"As hot as it is, everyone still has the same intensity," senior two-way lineman Chris Hale said. "The linebackers are tackling better, the linemen are blocking better, the running backs are hitting the holes harder, and it seems like our quarterback's making all the right reads."
The seventh-ranked Knights have returned most of their players from a squad whose 35-6 loss to Westminster in the Class 3A state semifinals ended a run of 10 consecutive victories. The streak had begun after a 30-6 loss to city rival Dunbar in the second game of the season and had carried the program to its fifth playoff berth since 1993.
Westminster's execution left the Knights dejected but determined. "We've worked our tails off this summer, lifting, running, going to camps to improve our technique - anything to gain the edge so we don't lose at the end of the season like we did last year," Hale said.
The Westminster loss "has been on our minds all year long," senior linebacker-running back Dominick Roseborough said. "Everyone's set a goal to go beyond what we did last year. Our mentality is that we haven't accomplished anything. We're like a brand-new team with brand-new talent that's real hungry to experience some success."
That success could be in reach for the Knights, who appear to be a better team with improved talent.
"When we scrimmaged them, they showed a lot of skill and athleticism," said Hassan Muhammad, an assistant coach for No. 2 Loyola. "But they were all business and real humble when they did something well. They played with poise and character - no trash-talking."
The players have respect for their program, which has a history that includes a 54-game unbeaten streak from 1934 to 1941 and a 29-game winning streak that ended with a 21-20 loss to Poly in '96.
"The tradition at City makes us want to work harder, knowing what we're trying to live up to and what we're capable of achieving," said linebacker Kyle Brooks, one of several senior leaders with a B-average or better. "We talk about the pressure that can come with this year - about keeping our heads, staying focused and maintaining composure on and off the field."
The Knights also want to join Poly, Edmondson and Dunbar as the only Baltimore City teams to reach the state finals. Dunbar remains the city's only state champion, winning in '94 and '95. The Poets were runners-up in '97, and Poly and Edmondson were runners-up in '93 and '99, respectively.
"We need to go hard for every second of every down of every single game," senior defensive end William Makell said. "If we do that, then I believe the sky is the limit for this team."
City lost just three of last year's starters to graduation, including All-Metro receiver-defensive back Sheldon Bell, who is a freshman at Duke.
City's top Division I prospect may be two-way lineman James Carmon, a 6-foot-7, 325-pound junior who earned second-team All-Baltimore County honors last season at Overlea. The Knights also gained Douglass transfer Sheldon Waller, a second-team All-Baltimore City pick who had nine interceptions as a defensive back and was solid at receiver.
"The transfers fit right in without issue," said senior defensive back Joshua Rushing, whose 10 interceptions are a single-season school record. "Even though most of us other guys had been together since we were freshmen, we just welcomed [Carmon and Waller], so the chemistry's still there."
Brooks (five sacks, two fumble recoveries), Roseborough and junior lineman Jonathan McDew (team-high 11 sacks) were the top three tacklers on a squad that allowed an average of seven points by city opponents, including shutouts of city rivals Edmondson, Walbrook and Lake Clifton.
Hale (5-7, 235), Makell (6-3, 230), senior two-way lineman Zion Pyatt (6-4, 290) and senior linebacker Earl Townes combined for 26 sacks, while Rushing and senior Mark Williams return to a defensive secondary that had a school-record 27 interceptions.
Offensively, the Knights return Roseborough, Townes and Brian Dunston to a backfield that generated nearly 1,500 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Ellis Foster struggled at times but gained experience last season.
"I don't feel as much pressure because I'm more knowledgeable about the plays," said Foster, 15, who passed for 785 yards and nine scores to help the Knights (11-2) match a single-season school record for wins. "Everybody's more familiar this year with how the offense is going to work."
Loyola's Muhammad was "impressed" with the Knights, including Foster.
"The QB is young, but he's an athlete who gives them the added dimension of being able to run the ball," Muhammad said. "Carmon's a monster who can dominate when they put him on defense, and Roseborough's a horse running out of that wing T - and he brings it, defensively."
The task of keeping the Knights' mentally grounded rests with coach George Petrides, 57, who starred as a linebacker for City in the late 1960s.
"The kids realize that we could easily have gone 2-11 last year, except that we snuck up on everyone and won some close games," said Petrides, who is 194-109-1 for his career. "This year, though, the kids know we have a target on our backs and that everyone's gunning for us."