FREDERICK - The Orioles of the Maryland School for the Deaf were working themselves into a frenzy.
Moments before the eighth game of this football season, the black and orange line of high school players stretched through the hallway outside their locker room. Assistant coach Jerry Mabashov walked down the line, grabbing each player's helmet and yelling encouragement through his face mask. The players pounded each other's helmets and shoulder pads.
Senior quarterback Jason Coleman and head coach Andy Bonheyo already had finalized the game plan. Coleman excitedly had questioned the coach, who answered in more deliberate sign language, pausing and nodding to make sure Coleman understood.
Shortly thereafter, Bonheyo, Coleman and the rest of the Orioles stood at attention on the school's field while two members of the MSD cheerleading squad gracefully signed the national anthem near midfield in front of maybe 200 parents, students and alumni - most of whom were also deaf. Bonheyo then gathered his team to sign one last message before sending the Orioles out to yet another victory.
"We are the same as hearing players," said Robin Shannon, a senior running back and safety. "Being deaf is not a challenge for us on the field."
This year, no one has provided much of a challenge for the Orioles on the field. Entering tonight's season finale at home against Fairfield Prep, a private school in Pennsylvania, the Orioles have breezed to their best season in school history.
Behind Bonheyo, who arrived at MSD this year with a resume that includes eight National Deaf Prep championships, the Orioles are 8-0 and have outscored their opponents 298-28, registering five shutouts in the process.
"I expected them to have a good year," said Bonheyo, 40, who also is deaf and who, like his players, spoke to a reporter through a sign-language interpreter. "They are a good group of boys, very talented, but I did not expect them to be undefeated."
With a win tonight, the Orioles, who are coming off a 46-0 victory over Florida School for the Deaf on Saturday, likely will clinch the school's first football National Deaf Prep championship. Though Alabama School for the Deaf, a team coached by Bonheyo's brother-in-law, is also unbeaten against deaf schools, the Alabama school has two losses against teams from mainstream schools. The Orioles, who have defeated four mainstream schools, also have scored more decisive victories against deaf schools than has Alabama.
"I know we are one of the leading candidates," Bonheyo said. "I also know for sure that we have to win [tonight's] game."
For Bonheyo, winning starts with communication.
"Here, kids are able to communicate with their teammates and coaches, and that is the best part of football," Bonheyo said.
On the sideline, coaches use sign language to send in plays.
"But that is the only difference," Bonheyo said. "We play by the same rules as everyone else."
Bonheyo chooses not to employ the drum-beat system some deaf teams use to coordinate the snap. The Orioles quarterback taps the center, while everyone else watches the ball.
"Each player lines up a little behind the next, so everyone can see the ball in the corner of their eye. When the ball moves, we move," said tight end and linebacker James Markel Jr., one of three Orioles from Baltimore.
That is just one of the changes the Orioles have made. The team has had the talent, evidenced by a seven-win season in 1999, but lacked stability. The nine seniors have played for four coaches in as many years.
Known for an intense and disciplined style, Bonheyo won three national titles at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington, D.C., and five at the Texas School for the Deaf.
"We had the skill, but we were always the dark horse," said Jason Yeh, a fullback and linebacker from Potomac. "Now, we have a good coach and a leader, who has made us better."
"They bought into his system and picked it up real quick," said MSD athletic director Scott Morrison. "I don't think there is any coach who could do what he is doing."
Bonheyo keeps a sign on his office door with the words, "Optimism is a way of life." He has translated that mind-set to his players, who wear T-shirts under their jerseys that say "Maryland Pride" on the front and "Refuse to Lose" on the back. He has also molded the players into "a brotherhood."
"We grew up together, put our hearts together, and we are playing together," Yeh said.
And the victories keep piling up, though the Orioles have only 21 players. (MSD, a pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade school, has 130 high school students overall.) Though scheduling non-deaf teams can be difficult - "Some schools don't want to take any chances by being defeated by a deaf school," Bonheyo said - the Orioles relish the challenge.
"Our kids won't back down from anybody," Morrison said. "They want to win so bad and show everybody that they can play."