Dundalk senior Chrys Lane can't wait to get back on the football field Wednesday for the first day of public school fall sports practice.
Lane's Owls were the fastest rising football team in the Baltimore area last fall, finishing 12-2 after reaching the Class 3A state final for the first time in school history. Lane, a running back and linebacker, knows the Owls have some reloading to do but said they can build off of last season's success.
"We've got a lot of talent this year. We've just got to put it all together," he said. "We've got to keep working and keep working and keep working. The juniors from last year's team have got to be able to teach the young guys and show them how to get better so when they do get in situations like last year in the Franklin game or in the Potomac game, it will be way easier for us to play in."
Last year, the Owls came from behind to upset two-time defending state champion Franklin in the regional final. In the state semifinal, quarterback Darrius Sample completed a short pass with 27 seconds left for a 41-34 Dundalk victory over Potomac.
In the state final, however, the Owls ran into the state's top running back as Jake Funk, now at Maryland, scored a state-record seven touchdowns to lead undefeated Damascus to the championship, 55-14.
Following up the best season in school history is no easy task and the Owls will do it with just six returning starters — three on each side of the ball.
Coach Sean Sandora, last season's All-Metro Coach of the Year, had been steadily building the Owls program for the previous three years, but they took a big leap last season improving from a 5-6 team in 2014 to 12-2. They finished with the No. 9 ranking in The Baltimore Sun's Top 15 — fourth among area public school programs.
"With this year's group, we've just been emphasizing that this is a new season, this is a new team," Sandora said. "We have the same goal that last year's team had and we just put a really big emphasis on finishing everything and doing your job. And we have some kids back in key positions who were able to make that run for us last year that are taking more of a leadership role."
Perhaps the key leader will be Sample, a second-team All-Metro pick who returns at quarterback after scoring 42 touchdowns last season, ran for more than 1,000 yards and threw for more than 1,400.
Sandora said Sample had the best summer of his career and although the senior is a man of few words, he's a popular teammate, according to Lane.
"He's a great team player. He's a really lovable guy," Lane said with a laugh.
Sample got most of the attention last season after scoring seven touchdowns in the season-opening win against Kenwood, but he wasn't even supposed to be the starting quarterback. He took over when senior Duron Ball got hurt and after that performance, Sandora kept Sample at the helm.
The coach said he could see Sample's game mature as the season went on and Sample continued to perform in the biggest games, including orchestrating an 82-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes of the state semifinal.
After a strong summer, Sample is getting most of the attention once again. Lane said that's fine, but don't overlook the rest of the team.
"They say the only thing we have this year is Darrius, so we want to prove there's more to us than Darrius. We're a team. We're not just an individual," Lane said. "But he's our leader as our quarterback and we're going to stand behind him."
In addition to Sample and Lane, the Owls return receiver-linebackers Derrick Spruill and Jordan Woods and linemen Yeabsira Tilahun and Brandon Butler from the starting lineup. Dundalk graduated 25 of its 39 players.
A few players return after seeing limited time last season and Sandora said some of the junior varsity players who move up learned a lot by traveling with varsity last year. A handful of transfers could help at the skill positions, because the Owls lost a lot of strong receiver-defensive backs.
"We're going to lean on our veteran leadership that we have coming back," Sandora said. "They have to take the role and responsibility of being leaders of this team, because they went through the experience last year that some of the younger guys and the new guys on the team haven't. They know what it takes to be that successful, so we're putting a heavy emphasis on them taking ownership of this team."
Lane said they've already been doing that, working extra hours together over the summer to get ready for a season that kicks off on Dundalk's new artificial turf field against Eastern Baltimore County rival Kenwood on Sept. 2. He said while last season's success helped with motivation, the main thing that carries over is the work ethic.
"This year since we've got a target on our back now, we've got to flip it around and we've got to become the hunter not the hunted," Lane said. "... We've got keep working. I like to tell the young guys, 'You've got to earn everything you get. Nothing's going to be given to us.' Last year's team was last year's team and we can't ride their coattails anymore."