In end, defeat, victory

High schools: Wilde Lake's season comes to a crushing halt in the first round of the state playoffs. But for the players, the year was a united triumph of the spirit.

November 16, 1999|By JAMISON HENSLEY | JAMISON HENSLEY,SUN STAFF

John Quinn walked off the field for the last time as a Wilde Lake High football player.

His jersey covered with grass stains and the left side of his face smeared with mud, the Wildecats senior moved out from the glaring stadium lights Friday and turned his back on a scoreboard that read: Seneca Valley 49, Wilde Lake 11. Then, Quinn cracked a slight grin.

Through the sting of the worst loss in his high school career, he realized that he and his teammates had few regrets in a season loaded with struggles.

The Wildecats (9-2) sweated out two overtime victories before hoisting their 17th Howard County championship trophy, which they shared with Howard High. They labored during a seven-game winning streak that ended their season, edging five teams by 10 points or fewer, to qualify for the Class 3A playoffs by just six-tenths of a point.

At the end, Wilde Lake landed short of its goal of a state championship, falling in the first round to Seneca Valley, ranked the No. 1 team in Maryland by the Associated Press. But when Quinn and the Wildecats huddled tightly around coach Doug DuVall for the final time this season, they heard an inspirational post-game speech devoid of disappointment.

"Just like in life, you can't win all the time, and you played valiantly. So hold your heads up high," a smiling DuVall told his players. "I love you all."

For Quinn, the season meant coming together as friends, on and off the field. That feeling of unity grew during weekly dinners with teammates at Bill Bateman's and Amore Pizzeria.

He learned to cope with lows and highs, recalling the team's frustration after becoming the first Wilde Lake team to lose to a Howard County rival in three years. That was replaced by nervous excitement during the close victories, shaping a bond among teammates.

The soft-spoken Quinn pushed himself to become the assertive voice of the defense. Relaying instructions from coaches, he called audibles and yanked out-of-position linemen into the right spots. The role was one he never imagined filling. The lesson was one in developing character to meet the needs of the team.

"This year was special," Quinn said. "For the first time, it wasn't about just playing football. It was about being a team."

The last hill

Quinn was one of 19 seniors who spent last week in the unaccustomed position. For a rare time in their careers, they were underdogs heading into a big game.

On Wednesday, it was the usual routine with an unusual sense of motivation.

As one of Wilde Lake's long-standing traditions, the Wildecats run up a hill at the far end of their field after practice once a week. With Quinn as one of the leaders every sprint up the incline, the players trudged up 13 times weekly, because the 13th game of the season would be the state final.

The coaches prodded the players. They wanted their minds on nothing but the playoff opponent, Seneca Valley, which had won 36 straight games, the longest winning streak among state schools.

"Do you got to beat them 10 times? No. You only got to beat them one time at Seneca Valley," defensive coordinator Mike Harrison said to his winded players. "Why not? Give me one good reason why you can't win?"

After the players' 13th trip up the hill, DuVall asked them to sit as the sun was setting behind them.

"Some great players have sat on this hill just like you," he said. "Every time they were an underdog, they always won. Who better to play than the best? What a great situation to be in. All you can do is all you can do. But all you can do has always been enough at the Lake."

The Wilde Lake players filed back to the locker room. But Quinn and senior quarterback Chad Fawcett remained 10 minutes on the darkened hill.

They contemplated their high school careers. They talked about how friends at school expected them to lose this game. They spoke about how Quinn's role had changed this season.

Quinn traded touchdowns for victories when he volunteered to switch from tailback to a blocking fullback after starter Jason Dawns was injured. He also became the Wildecats' leading tackler as a middle linebacker despite being undersized for that position at 6 feet, 190 pounds.

Quinn, who has a 3.7 grade-point average, is undecided about where he wants to go to college, but expects to play either football or baseball at a Division I-AA or III school. His father, John Quinn Sr., played linebacker at Penn State and used to coach football at Howard High.

"John is the definition of a hero," Harrison said. "You ask of him all the things that he probably would prefer not to do. He does it because he wants the team to win."

The final practice

The chilly air was crisp and the tension thick.

During Thursday's warm-ups, the Wildecats' chatter centered on what was most likely their last practice and a reluctance to jinx their efforts by acknowledging it.

Fawcett told his teammates, "Pretend like this is our last practice and go hard the entire time." Geneo Colston, a 6-3, 304-pound offensive lineman, answered, "But it isn't."

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