How Wilde Lake rebuilt success

December 02, 1992|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Staff Writer

Wilde Lake football coach Doug DuVall said something about his team three months ago that, in hindsight, served as a preview for an unforgettable season.

Minutes after the Wildecats had turned back a stubborn, physical South Carroll team with a three-touchdown, fourth-quarter rally to win, 28-7, DuVall talked about a special chemistry he sensed among his players.

"I can see it in their eyes. These kids are scared to lose, scared to not play well," DuVall said. "It shows in the way they listen to us. When we walk into the locker room and have something to say, it gets so quiet you can hear a pin drop. All eyes are on us."

With that, DuVall defined the essential difference between this team and the two state champions that preceded it.

The 1990 and 1991 teams had a brashness about them, which is fitting, considering the tremendous talent they had. In 1990, running back Raphael Wall and defensive back Ricky Rowe were two of the best 10 players in the state.

That team came to camp with something to prove and the tools -- they included junior linebacker Brent Guyton and junior lineman James Easterly (6-5, 290) -- to prove it. They rolled through the regular season, then tasted sweet revenge by beating Damascus in the 2A title game in overtime.

After Wall went to Maryland and Rowe to Penn State, Guyton and Easterly became the foundation of a Wildecats team bent on repeating as state champs. That team, with the swagger of its predecessor, rolled through the regular season, then won the 1A state title over Smithsburg to complete its second straight, undefeated season. Guyton went to UCLA, and Easterly to Georgia Tech.

This year's Wilde Lake model started the season with the weight of two perfect seasons on its shoulders. The Wildecats had lost a dozen starters to graduation. There was not a blue-chip Division I prospect to be found. Of the 28 players on the roster, the Wildecats would be relying on more two-way players than ever. They had speed to burn, but they lacked the seasoning and depth that a defending state champion usually needs. They lacked that swagger.

DuVall has often said: "High school football is 60 percent coaching, 30 percent talent and 10 percent luck." If anything, Wilde Lake's historic 1992 season -- during which the Wildecats become the first Baltimore area school to win three consecutive state titles -- was an affirmation of DuVall's theory.

Take the offensive line, for example. Except for center Cedric Benning, the line never had played a varsity down. And because of its inexperience, the Wildecats' offense sputtered throughout September.

The defense, particularly the line and the secondary, was just as inexperienced. Wilde Lake gave up 43 points in its first three games, including a 28-27 overtime loss to Southern (AA) that ended the Wildecats' winning streak at 28 games.

Luck visited the Wildecats early, both good and bad. The week before the Southern loss, they lost senior linebacker Paul Knox because of a broken arm. The week after the Southern loss, the Wildecats experienced their luckiest game. Howard's Guy Smith fumbled two yards before scoring what would have been the winning touchdown in overtime. The Wildecats recovered in the end zone and escaped with a 3-0 victory.

That victory marked a turning point. After the Howard game, DuVall decided to make a change in his wishbone offense by moving tight end Nate Casella to running back. From that moment, Casella, who already had been stellar at defensive end, became the heart and soul of the Wildecats.

More luck came Wilde Lake's way. The Wildecats gained confidence by overmatching Atholton, Centennial and Mount Hebron by a combined 136-0. That set them up for the stretch run.

In the last five games -- regular-season victories over Glenelg and Hammond and playoff victories over Havre de Grace, Easton and Cambridge -- Wilde Lake did the things it does with uncanny regularity late in the season. It forced 22 turnovers, but committed only three. It dictated the tempo against every opponent with its attacking defense and ball-control offense. Its coaches, who put some 4,000 miles on their vehicles this season scouting possible playoff opponents, out-worked and out-prepared their peers.

Knox returned in time to perform heroically throughout the playoffs, which included a 10-tackle, two-interception game against Easton. Eric Lach, one of DuVall's projects in September, played the game of his life against Cambridge by blocking a punt and sacking Cambridge quarterback Dietrich Johnson twice.

Little came easy for this year's Wildecats.

Six of their nine regular-season victories were not decided until the second half. They needed a 14-point, fourth-quarter rally to put away Easton, 35-14. They had to rebound from a 7-0 deficit to stop Cambridge, 23-7. They went out with Casella (890 yards rushing in his last nine games) putting on a show.

"Ordinary kids who are extraordinary workers" is how DuVall characterized this team.

Great coaching? Talent? Luck? These Wildecats had it all. All we can do is admire them and dare them to make it four in a row.

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