Lightning finds itself struck by adversity

Preseason: Long Reach seemed a likely challenger for a county title. That was before a car mishap, an arrest, and surgery. Now, some wonder what's next.

September 02, 1999|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,SUN STAFF

Every time Long Reach football coach Pete Hughes turns around, there's some additional discouraging news.

Automobile accident. Drug bust. Emergency appendectomy.

Three key football players sidelined -- one for the season.

It seems that Long Reach's hope for its first county football championship simply is not meant to be.

Is not another catastrophe waiting to strike? Or if bad things come in threes, is Long Reach finally in the clear?

And can the depleted but senior-dominated Lightning now concentrate on winning that first county football championship -- something they expected to do last season but somehow missed? Or will the losses derail that effort?

No one ever told Lightning coach Pete Hughes that winning a county football title would be easy, especially in a county dominated by five-time state champion Wilde Lake. But Hughes probably never dreamed it'd be this tough. He faces a monumental challenge trying to keep his team focused.

Most schools that had been open just three years would be ecstatic with a combined 18-12 football record and one regional championship.

Not so at Long Reach, where talent and expectations run high.

So at practice last Friday, Hughes exhorted his team to focus on the project at hand -- the next day's scrimmage against Glen Burnie. He urged the players to silence the naysayers ready to proclaim the Lightning dead in the water after losing its star player, Devin Conwell, on drug allegations.

Conwell was arrested Aug. 4 at his home, and police recovered a significant amount of drugs and a handgun from his bedroom, said a press release issued Aug. 20 by School Superintendent Michael Hickey. Conwell, assigned to home-schooling, is barred from Howard County school property but not suspended or expelled. His grand jury hearing is scheduled for today.

Hughes said Conwell had three full college football scholarship offers and likely will attend school at and play football for either a Baltimore County school or a private school -- but declined to name a particular school.

No doubt, Conwell's loss is felt heavily at Long Reach -- not just physically on the field, where he made 104 tackles, intercepted seven passes and rushed for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns last season and would have been one of just two fourth-year starters this season -- but emotionally in the players' hearts and minds.

"We've lost a member of our family. It was very unexpected. It hurts mentally," said Luis George, a three-year starter and All-County cornerback.

Tally White, Long Reach's other would-be fourth-year starter, will miss at least the first two weeks of the regular season after undergoing an emergency appendectomy Aug. 18. White, a 6-foot-2, 225 pound linebacker who also will play running back this season, made 69 tackles, seven sacks and had two fumble recoveries and was first-team All-County a year ago.

"Losing Devin is like losing my right arm. We've played together since fifth grade. He was a quiet leader. We were shocked. I hope this will just be a learning experience for him and doesn't ruin his life," White said. "It kind of seems like we're not meant to be. But it's going to make us stronger. We have tremendous talent here. These are tests. If we pass, then we get the `A. '"

Another missing piece of the talent puzzle is 5-10, 250-pound junior lineman Tom Kerr, sidelined until late October with a broken left-upper arm, the result of a mid-summer automobile crash.

"That's a big hurt," White said. "We expected big things from him. He's All-County material, and now he hasn't got a chance to show people again." Kerr broke a foot against River Hill last season, causing him to miss eight games.

That was the same game that 6-0, 210-pound linebacker Joe Hamilton tore an anterior-cruciate ligament. Hamilton is back now, but wearing a knee brace.

To make matters worse, Long Reach unexpectedly lost that game, 10-9.

"That was the turning point of our season," Hughes said. The Lightning struggled to a 6-4 record, even though they never trailed at halftime the entire season.

"River Hill has been made into our rival, even though we don't know anyone over there," White said. "I like playing the backyard teams like Howard and Oakland Mills. We play out the games with those guys 20 times during the summer in backyard games."

White thinks last season's disappointments were caused by the team playing either too cautiously or too confidently.

"You have to clear your mind and play hard every play and not worry about making mistakes," he said. "And some teams got us, because we got too big-headed."

Defense has sparked most of Long Reach's 18 victories.

"It's hard not to be defense-based with coach Hughes," White said. "Only the defense gets special jerseys."

This year's jerseys, worn in practice only by the starters, are black with a skull and crossbones and read ICMB -- short for Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.

"We're supposed to explode on contact," White said.

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