The football season was three weeks old, Wilde Lake was off to a 3-0start and Wildecats defensive coach Mike Harrison was concerned.
Harrison, in his first year as defensive coach, had reason to worry.
Sure, the Wildecats were unbeaten. Sure, they had recorded a 27-0victory over an outclassed Dundalk team in their second game. But their defense -- by Wilde Lake standards at least -- had looked, well, ordinary. They had already surrendered four touchdowns. The defensivebackfield was getting burned. With seven varsity newcomers, the defense was showing its age.
"I don't know if we've ever started from scratch like we did this year," Harrison says. "When things weren't coming together early, I thought people could come in and throw whenever they wanted. We were giving up all our yards to the pass."
Fiveweeks, five victories and four shutouts later, the defense doesn't look so young anymore. Against the five county opponents Wild Lake hasgiven up a total of only 13 points, all in last week's 34-13 victoryover Atholton. The defense is projecting the swagger of Wilde Lake teams past.
"I'm not into making comparisons of one defense to the next. This is a fine one. It's as good as some of the ones we've had at Wilde Lake," says Harrison, a six-year assistant at Wilde Lake whobecame the defensive coach after Ed Ashwell took the head coaching job at Glenelg.
The Wildecats are enjoying another banner season. As the
defending 2A champions, they took an 8-0 record and a 21-game winning streak into yesterday's Mount Hebron game. They are zeroingin on their ninth county title in 12 years, a possible 1A championship and their second straight undefeated season.
Many pieces have fallen into place for the Wildecats this year. The offense, which struggled periodically while trying to adapt to a run-and-shoot attack earlier in the season, has reverted to a broken wishbone formation and settled down to average 26 points a game. The kicking game has been energized by senior walk-on George Bradford, who has averaged 39 yardsa punt and more than 50 yards per kickoff.
But the key to the Wildecats' resurgence has been the maturity of its defense.
"Once these kids believed they were good, this whole thing caught fire," says Harrison, who went back to a five-man defensive front alignment aftertoying with a 4-3 early in the season. "The progress they've made has been tremendous."
After struggling somewhat to a 3-0 start -- which included a 20-12 victory over South Carroll and a 27-15 victory over Southern (Anne Arundel County) -- the defense regrouped to reel off four straight shutouts. The Wildecats have outscored their five county opponents, 135-13, while surrendering an average of just 80 yards against each.
On the season, the Wilde Lake defense has given upjust 40 points, while forcing 35 turnovers and scoring five touchdowns. It has allowed just 1.9 yards per rushing attempt.
Great defense is something taken for granted at Wilde Lake. When Harrison playeddefensive tackle under head coach Doug DuVall 10 years ago, the Wildecats allowed only 49 points during the season. Last year's 2A state championship permitted just 29 points during the regular season.
The Wildecats have given up 40 in eight games this year.
"You watchthem on film, and things that appear to be there close up in a hurry," says Howard head coach John Quinn, whose Lions had a 4-0 start ended by Wilde Lake last month.
"They don't get very sophisticated, but they don't need to be. They have the athletes, and their kids are well-schooled fundamentally. They get off the ball well and tackle well."
The performance of the defense has been especially satisfyingto Harrison. Coming into the season, he faced several challenges.
He replaced Ashwell, who had coached the defense for eight years. And he was dealt a defensive unit that posed numerous question marks. Only four starters -- middle linebacker Brent Guyton, nose guard Tony Farace and tackles Blaize Connely-Duggan and James Easterly -- returned. The entire backfield, with the exception of senior cornerback Andre Martin -- a pleasant transfer surprise -- was playing varsity ballfor the first time.
And in the first three weeks, the vulnerability showed.
"I got beat deep for a TD in the last six minutes of the South Carroll game," recalls Bradford, who in his first year of football starts at cornerback. "After the Southern game, there were a lot of question marks again. But after beating Oakland Mills and Howard, we got the streak going."
Bradford is referring to the 16-quarter scoreless streak the defense posted, beginning with a 21-0 victory over archrival Oakland Mills in game four. Bradford intercepted a pass to aid that victory.
The Wildecats then beat Howard, 10-0, by holding the Lions to 55 yards of offense, before trouncing Centennial, 42-0.
"That was the turning point, when everything started clicking," Harrison says.
Hammond managed only 51 yards in a 28-0 Wildecats romp.