Wilde Lake, "the best little football team around" in Coach Doug DuVall's eyes, is living in pretty select company these days.
With Saturday's resounding 21-0 defeat of archrival Oakland Mills, Wilde Lake improved its record to 4-0 and extended its winning streak to 17 --the longest in the state -- beginning with the first victory of lastyear's 13-0, state championship season. The streak figures to stretch well into November, when the Wildecats, thanks largely to their new1A classification, should be nearing their third state title.
But that's only half of it.
For the first time in school history, Wilde Lake is ranked No. 1 in The (Baltimore) Sun's Top 20.
Mythical or not -- and high school football rankings are more illusory than NCAA Division I college polls -- the Wildecats have broken new ground.
A Class 1A school, the smallest classification in terms of school population (fewer than 615 students in the 10th to 12th grades), has never held the top football spot. Wilde Lake has been perched there for the past two weeks.
Wilde Lake got some early help. Despite losing All-Metro players Raphael Wall (running back) and Rickey Rowe (safety) to graduation, despite starting the season with an untested defensive secondary and a new run-and-shoot offense, the Wildecats were installed as the area's No. 3 team in the preseason.
The residual effect of Wilde Lake's state title and its influence on Maryland's 17-9 victory in the Big 33 game also had to help the Wildecats gain such strong consideration. DuVall coached the team that included Rowe and Wall.
Then, after Poly and Loyola suffered season-openingdefeats, Wilde Lake suddenly found itself in uncharted territory. Even last year, when the Wildecats were DuVall's best team ever, they finished second behind Baltimore County's Randallstown, the 4A champ.
The Wildecats are taking their celebrity calmly, reflecting the attitude of a team that makes the playoffs year after year and has grown accustomed to attention.
"We just take it (the top ranking) in stride," says senior running back Damon Hamlin. "We like being No. 1. It makes it more of a challenge to go out and play hard every week. It makes us concentrate more."
During DuVall's 19 years there, Wilde Lake has made a habit of fielding excellent talent that concentrates very well. The Wildecats have won eight county championships in thepast 11 years, two state titles in the past six.
The program has produced such notable athletes as Jim Traber, former Baltimore Orioleand now a professional baseball player in Japan; Jack Bradford, justgraduated from the University of Maryland after a fine college career; and most recently Wall and Rowe, who have moved on to Maryland andPenn State to pursue promising careers. Under DuVall, the school hasattracted nearly $2 million in football scholarships.
The Wildecats are a methodical, confident group from DuVall to his assistants and right down to the last player. From the first day of practice, theyexpect to be eyeing a state championship come November.
DuVall dismisses the polls. Yet in the next breath he highlights the Wildecats' achievements in the face of adversity, namely its shrinking school population. Hence, the "little team that could" imagery.
"I reallydon't think about it (the top ranking) much," DuVall says. "But the kids are scared to death. They'd rather not be No. 1."
On the contrary, says Wilde Lake senior linebacker Brent Guyton, who is probablythe Wildecats' best player.
"It's (the rankings) the first thing we look for in the paper," he says. "We're used to being good. When you're No. 1, a lot of people look up to you and respect you, and thatmakes you feel good. The players have more to uphold. Coach DuVall always reminds us that a team can make its season by beating us. The thing is, if half the people who look at the rankings looked at our team in practice, they'd ask, 'How can this team be No. 1?' "
The Wildecats stand an excellent chance of maintaining top-dog status for the rest of the ride.
Their offense, which features a big, quick line, the running of Hamlin and the passing of senior quarterback Phil White, has struggled at times but is still averaging nearly four touchdowns a game. The defense, which held an injury-riddled Oakland Mills team to minus 10 yards and recorded its second shutout in a month, is clearly coming into its own.
The Wildecats are the class of theweak 1A division, which admits teams each year into the state playoffs with as many as four losses. In 2A, the state's deepest, most talented classification, teams with one loss often don't get invited to the postseason.
Wilde Lake also could maintain its No. 1 ranking without having played any of the 19 teams below it.
"We try to downplay it (being No. 1)," says defensive coach Mike Harrison. "This group is very businesslike. They just try to worry about preparing for next week."
Deep down, though, you know the Wildecats want it all --another county title, back-to-back state crowns, a 26-game winning streak and their mythical place in history. And as you watch this teamsteadily improve while maintaining the trademark chip on its shoulder, you wonder how it can be stopped.