Watkins Mill head football coach Kevin Watson gathered his players around him next to the team’s idling bus after pounding Poolesville 42-14 last week.
Never mind that the program hasn’t had a winning record in a decade. Never mind that the 2011 Wolverines sputtered short of lofty expectations, finishing with a 4-6 record. Never mind that since moving to the 3A West division, Watkins Mill football has seemed stuck behind powerhouses Seneca Valley and Damascus.
The Wolverines's focus, Watson said, need be set solely on their Sept. 7 home opener against Damascus, when Wolverines Stadium will be a-rocking and its fans rabid for a tide-turning upset over the vaunted Swarmin’ Hornets.
"In order to make that playoff run that we talked about, you’ve got to knock off one of the big dogs,” Watson told his players. “Well guess what; you’ve got a big dog next week. It’s a matter of who’s going to bite first: us or them. You’ve got to make it happen. This is what it’s about next week. Now We’ll see what rises to the top, and it’s got to be us.”
It stands as a daunting task. Damascus—ranked third by The Gazette—boasts the much-ballyhooed talent of Zach Bradshaw, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound senior WR/LB who in the Hornets’ Week 1 walloping of Clarksburg touched the ball twice—and scored both times, first on a 55-yard punt return, then on an 82-yard interception.
Damascus will bring a decidedly defensive brand of football to Gaithersburg Friday night. The two teams battled to a bruising standstill last year before the Hornets muscled out a 7-0 win. And in their season-opener last week, Damascus scored three touchdowns before its offense ever took the field.
“I’m hoping this squad remembers last year,” Watson said. “I’m hoping we can rise to that occasion. Because it’s a big stage; they’ve been on that big stage, we haven’t really hit that stage yet. We can get over that hump. We’re right there, but we’ve got to get there.”
The brand of football Watkins Mill will use to get there is less of a known commodity. Their roster was gutted by graduation, and the team is still feeling out who they are, Watson said.
Whatever style emerges, it will revolve largely around quarterback Patrick Schlosser. In the 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior, the Wolverines believe they field one of Montgomery County premiere athletes: he is the county’s reigning 100-meter dash title-holder and the Maryland 3A discus champion.
Schlosser took over the QB1 reins last year, orchestrating an offense that packed plenty of big-play punch but suffered a slew of ill-timed injuries and too often proved unable to sustain drives at crucial times. The physical pounding he had taken all season ultimately caught up with him; a concussion knocked him out of the final two games.
For his senior campaign, Schlosser’s maturation is manifest, Watson said.
“He’s got that composure now,” Watson said. “It’s there. He’s a lot more comfortable, a lot more aware of the game itself.”
The offensive weapons around him include the likes of Quinton Littlejohn, Dontay Hears, Prodige Kikwata and J.R. Gibson. As with many a Wolverine teams past, this year’s group has plenty of speed to burn—Hears and Littlejohn ran half of Watkins Mill’s 4x200 relay state runner-up last spring.
That play-making erupted against Poolesville last week: the first of Hears’s three catches was a 50-yard score on the game’s second play from scrimmage. Littlejohn racked up 69 yards on his eight carries, including a 40-yard touchdown burst. And Kikwata—a Good Counsel transfer and Watkins Mill’s SGA president this year—took two of his four carries in for scores.
But it was Gibson who had the most inspired play. The senior missed nearly all of last season because of a knee injury in the Poolesville opener. Last week, Gibson put the game on ice midway through the second quarter when he took a Falcon punt on the bounce, backpedalled, side-stepped the first would-be tacklers, floated to the right sideline, picked out his line of blockers, and carved back across to the left sideline for an 80-yard touchdown that put Watkins Mill up 28-0.
“We’ve got some of the fastest guys and I think some of the most talented guys out there,” Schlosser said. “We get the ball in their hands and they’ll make a move.”
Friday showdown with Damascus isn’t merely the Wolverines’ chance for an upset that would make the rest of Montgomery County sit up and take notice. It’s also a chance to cement a team culture that the players are determined to reverse after the bitterness that crept in with last season’s close losses, then bottomed out in a demoralizing Homecoming defeat by a Magruder squad that had won only one game, ending in an outburst of frustration and on-field bickering.
The 2012 Wolverines, Schlosser said, promise to be an altogether different animal.
“Everybody’s responsive; nobody closes off or shuts themselves off from the team,” he said. “It’s a real family this year; it really feels like a family.”