Breaking new ground

Improved running back Matt Winger has Atholton on the fast track to respectability.


Atholton senior running back Matt Winger always makes sure to give credit where it's due.

He'll talk up his trusted offensive line to no end. He makes certain to point out how senior fullback Patrick Hayden recklessly crashes through anybody who gets in his way. And he shows appreciation to coach Chuck Fales each week for giving him the opportunity to make a difference.

It's not until the team gets together in the film room one Saturday morning in mid-September - eating six dozen doughnuts brought in by Winger while reviewing the Raiders' 40-22 win over Rockville - that he reluctantly gets around to giving some due to the guy who runs the ball for Atholton. The night before, Winger - the program's career rushing leader with 1,843 yards over three seasons - went for a school-record 341 yards that included touchdowns runs of 77, 80, 65 and 45 yards.

"There was a couple of `oohs' and `wows' and some jaws dropped, but mostly everybody was busy eating the doughnuts," said Winger with a smile. "I was very impressed with my offensive line and to be perfectly honest, I was impressed with myself for not getting caught [on some of the long touchdown runs]."

There's a big change in Winger this season and an even bigger one with the Atholton football team, which is 2-3 after winning just three games over past three seasons.

Both are now quickly turning the corner and not looking back.

"I think the majority of the kids on this team love the game of football and want to be around it," Winger said at a recent practice. "Everybody wants to be out here and is fired up to play. Last year, we didn't have that."

Last season, the Raiders didn't have two wins the entire season, going 1-9, and Winger didn't have the breakaway speed he has now. Along with hitting the weight room and running over the summer, the 5-foot-9, 190-pound back did other things to further strengthen his legs, like running in water and calf raises.

The extra work showed up in his 40 time - he said he went from a 4.7 to a 4.4 that had "the coaches' eyes real big when they saw it" - and also on the field. Unlike previous years, when Winger gets in the open field, he's gone. On 106 carries this season, he's run for 818 yards (7.7 average) and scored eight touchdowns.

"At the high school level, most kids either have some moves and are fast or they run in a straight line with power," said defensive coordinator Rick Trott, a 1996 graduate who had the previous single-game high for rushing yards by a running back.

"Matt now has the unique ability to do both. So he can make people miss, he can run away from people and he can run through people. The biggest difference between this year and his first two years is speed."

It's more than just an increase in speed, though. Fales said Winger has matured and added confidence in his senior year.

The offensive line has been together for a couple of seasons and Winger made a point of learning the blocking scheme for each play. With that has come improved vision: It's find the hole, quickly get through it and then go.

"He gives the team a lot of lift-off," Fales said. "Everybody knows Matt has the potential to always break a long one to get us on the scoreboard. Sometimes I think people on our team sit back and wait for him to get the job done. And so far, he's done that."

The team's 19-12 win against county foe Mount Hebron on Sept. 30 was a prime example. Down 12-0 at the half, the Raiders came out and scored on three straight possessions to come away with a win. Winger ran for the first two touchdowns and had a key 20-yard catch on the third scoring drive.

"I don't know if it's confidence or maturity or probably a combination of both, but when he sees a hole, he explodes through it a little quicker this year," Mount Hebron coach Larry Luthe said. "They ran a lot of weak-side isolation where he turned it up and then bounced outside for some nice runs that kept some drives going for them."

It was a win that the most Raiders would agree wouldn't have happened in years past.

"It feels good to know that all of our hard work is paying off," Winger said. "For the past two years, we were working hard, but it didn't seem to click. It hurts so bad knowing you prepared and put in the work over the week just to get blown out on Fridays or Saturdays. This year, we're getting some wins and it feels great."

As for giving credit where it's due, the Atholton offensive line shares the sentiment.

"He's always letting us know we're doing well, and that just wants you to keep going," senior right tackle Sonny Mazzullo said. "It gets me fired up when I'm blocking and then I'm seeing him fly by me to get all those extra yards. He's always breaking long runs."

Winger also is a starting guard for the Atholton basketball team, but there's no doubt his passion is in football. That was apparent when he was 4 years old, watching fellow little ones playing flag football.

"I started crying I wanted to play football so bad," he said. "That night, my dad called the Columbia Bulldogs and the next day I was playing. I've been playing ever since and can't get enough of it."

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