Few high school football teams begin a season under the weight of such high expectations. But few teams thrive on pressure like Wilde Lake.
Before a season-opening 28-7 victory over visiting South Carroll Saturday, the air was as heavy with hype as humidity. Fans wore hats that said "26-0," a reference to Wilde Lake's 26-game winning streak over the past two undefeated seasons.
Some could be heard chanting "three-peat," a call to the Wildecats to produce their third consecutive state championship, something only one school -- Springbrook of Montgomery County -- has managed.
On paper, this is the most inexperienced Wilde Lake team of the past three seasons. The offensive line, except for center Cedric Benning, started its first varsity game Saturday. The backfield, save for an occasional clutch appearance by senior Nate Cassella, revealed a new rotation and a new quarterback in junior Seth Willingham. Half of the defense consisted of newcomers. Yet those supposed shortcomings didn't stop the Wildecats from staring down the Cavaliers in an enjoyable battle that pitted speed against power.
The power belonged to South Carroll. The Cavaliers boast an offensive line averaging 230 pounds and a backfield led by 6-foot-3, 245-pound senior Mike Dodd. For three quarters, Dodd and his burly teammates punished the Wildecats with no-frills, -- between-the-tackles football on the ground. The Wildecats bent but held throughout the first half, then finally gave in during a grueling 16-play, 46-yard drive that consumed 8:20 of the third period and ended with Dodd scoring from the 4 to tie the game at seven.
The Wilde Lake faithful squirmed. The 26-game streak appeared to be in jeopardy. But as fast as you can say state title, the Wildecats showed why they are always still playing around Thanksgiving.
Speed took over and won going away. Three plays after Dodd's TD, Willingham -- who looked nothing like a 16-year-old playing his first varsity game -- hit Cassella in stride down the left sideline for a 40-yard gain to the South Carroll 17. Four plays later on fourth and inches, Willingham rolled out to his right, faked a pitchout, and ran seven yards for the go-ahead score a minute into the fourth quarter.
Then, another hero stepped up to center stage. After South Carroll had picked up a first down, Craig Butler, the fastest of the Wildecats, leaped high to intercept a pass near midfield by Ron Garrett. On the third play of Wilde Lake's ensuing possession, Butler blew past a South Carroll cornerback, ran under a bomb by Willingham, and cruised to the end zone to complete a 51-yard TD.
The Wildecats then closed out opening day like the great finishers they have been for years under coach Doug DuVall. They blocked a punt on South Carroll's next possession, and Forrest Gwynn scored on a 30-yard run to wrap up their 27th consecutive victory.
One game does not a season make, but the Wildecats gave enough glimpses of greatness to send expectations for 1992 soaring.
Some of the evidence wasn't surprising. Donald Gibson and Paul Knox, two strong holdovers from last year's team, held the defense together early and provided the big plays to keep South Carroll off balance. Gibson led the way with 12 solo tackles, six assists and two sacks. Knox had nine tackles and six assists. Behind those two, Wilde Lake shut down the Cavaliers after Dodd's touchdown. They gang-tackled like typical Wildecats.
Gibson also set the tone with the first of Wilde Lake's many big plays, a weapon the slower, tiring Cavaliers never did solve. His 40-yard punt return gave the Wildecats the ball at the South Carroll 25 with 3:54 left in the first half of a scoreless game. That changed on the next play, as running back Tyrone Hayward took a quick pitch to his right, cut between two blocks and sprinted untouched into the end zone. Willingham kicked the first of four extra points to make it 7-0.
From there, the big plays multiplied. First Cassella, then Butler, then Gwynn. In all, 180 of Wilde Lake's 264 offensive yards came on six plays.
And in the middle of the excitement was Willingham, a 6-2, 170-pound kid who showed the arm and the poise of a veteran. He ran the triple option flawlessly, switched to the run-and-shoot smoothly. He never panicked in the pocket, one reason he
completed four of five passes for a whopping 128 yards. His only incompletion came on a pass batted away at the line of scrimmage.
"Going into the game I was nervous, but I knew we had worked too hard all week," Willingham said.
"Me and Cedric decided we weren't going to fumble any snaps, the line gave me time to throw, all of our backs ran well and we used our excellent speed. As the season goes on, I hope we open it [the offense] up even more." As the season goes on, count on the Wildecats being one of the more exciting, open-field teams that the county has seen in recent years.
"What's great about this group is they don't think they are that good," DuVall said. "They're young, they're scared, and they hit you like hell."