The only person not surprised by the dramatic turnaround of coach Ed Ashwell's Glenelg football program is Ashwell.
As the season swings into Week 8, Glenelg is enjoying its best season in a decade. The Gladiators (4-0, 6-1) are tied with Wilde Lake for first place in the county standings, having just beaten Hammond, 31-18. They are contemplating a county title and a playoff berth, two previously unthinkable goals. Their fans, loyal in the worst of times, are coming out in droves.
Ashwell's response to all of this? A shrug of the shoulders and an expression that says, 'Yeah, we're 6 and 1. What's the big deal?' "
"A lot of the other [Howard County] coaches didn't think we'd be where we are right now. I know, because I talked to them," Ashwell says. "I knew we'd be competitive. A lot of people thought we'd be on a three- or four-year plan. I always thought it would just take two years, if the kids did what we wanted them to do."
The Gladiators can point to a list of reasons why they've turned into the most compelling story of the fall, beginning with running back Paul Brosenne (1,031 yards rushing). He is possibly the toughest back the county has seen since Glenelg's Dan Ricker 10 years ago.
The Gladiators' success is attributed to Ashwell. There have been no flashy transfers or new faces to change the team's chemistry. In fact, the Gladiators are not very fast or big. In many ways, it's the same group of players that went 2-8 last season in Ashwell's rookie year. It was Glenelg's third consecutive losing season.
The Gladiators have grown up. And that transformation has Ashwell's fingerprints all over it.
When he arrived at his old school -- he graduated from Glenelg in 1977 -- Ashwell's reputation preceded him. As a defensive coach for 10 years at Wilde Lake, people associated Ashwell with tough defense and winning.
Ashwell still had to sell the Gladiators on how to get from Point A to Point B, though. He started by demanding that the players adhere to an off-season weight-training program. It has taken a year for the heavy lifting to begin paying off.
"Last year we were physically weak, and we couldn't do anything," Ashwell says. "This year, we're still not as strong as we should be, but we're progressing. Last year, we were getting pushed back. This year, we're crossing the line of scrimmage. We're getting some good surges."
No one symbolizes that commitment to conditioning more than Brosenne, who squats 590 pounds.
Last year represented a patchwork season. Ashwell and offensive coordinator Dean Sheridan taught new formations and plays throughout the season, and constantly shifted players to different positions. The growing pains were evident.
This year's model was better tuned from the start. The offensive line, for instance, has been together since day one. And a winning attitude has mushroomed. Ashwell preached throughout the August practices about the importance of a good start. The Gladiators went into the county schedule with a 2-1 record and the feeling that they could compete.
Since then, they have gathered confidence at every turn. They beat a struggling Oakland Mills team by a touchdown on a 58-yard run by Brosenne. Then, they stared down a fine Howard team in the fourth quarter behind Brosenne to win, 22-14, a game that marked the year's turning point. An easy 28-6 homecoming victory over Hebron followed.
And on Saturday, the Gladiators did what they hadn't done all year -- won a game with great defense and without a huge game from Brosenne, who left with a cut on his arm in the third quarter. Linebacker Chris Cordisco and cornerback Jason Beall returned interceptions for long touchdowns. The Gladiators forced four turnovers.
After the game, Beall talked about the differences a year and Ashwell have made.
"He [Ashwell] won't back down to anyone. Now, we believe we don't have to back down to anyone," Beall said.
"Now, we want to play football. The people at Glenelg want to see us play football. We were so terrible before. Now, we're all together and it feels so great to be a winning team."
Teams reflect the personalities of the coaches. Ashwell is a straightforward type who chants the cliches about hard work and one game at a time and improving each week. And it's clear the Gladiators have bought into his creed. He knows how to win, and the Gladiators are learning volumes about winning each week.
Last year, Glenelg was an automatic "W" on someone else's schedule. This year, barring an upset by Atholton on Saturday, the Gladiators will play Wilde Lake for the county championship in Week 9. Two years after leaving coach Doug DuVall's program, Ashwell will try to take the torch from his mentor.
"We're not at Wilde Lake's level yet. They're still above everybody else," Ashwell said. "We've got Atholton this week and we're not going to look past that. I'm happy, but I'm not satisfied. We've still got a ways to go."
Spoken like a winner who knows he's getting closer, and doing it faster than everyone expected. Everyone except him, of course.