Raiders keep winning edge

Determined to turn its football program around after a 3-7 season, surprising Loch Raven has stayed focused during an emotional time.


Members of Loch Raven's football team knew turning around the program coming off a 3-7 season would be a challenge. They didn't realize, however, just how much their resolve would be tested.

Two days after a big 25-0 win at Eastern Tech, the Raiders experienced tragedy: Phyllis Lehman, 53, whose husband, Mark, is the Raiders' head coach, died of cancer after more than two years with the illness.

In support of an emotional Mark Lehman, who had taken a leave of absence following a win over Randallstown the previous week, the players signed the game ball from the Eastern Tech victory and delivered it to the coach at Phyllis Lehman's funeral on the morning of Oct. 19.

Defensive tackle James Pumphrey, quarterback-kicker Danny Hunter and linebacker Anthony Crenshaw served as pallbearers alongside assistant coaches Robert Mullin and Richard Harris.

"They've [players] been great about everything. I'll never forget what they've done," said Lehman, 55, whose top assistant, Tom Gunn, has replaced him until his scheduled return to the team Monday.

"Obviously, it's been an emotional time," Gunn said. "But our kids are just one of those rare groups who just refuse to give in and quit."

Gunn's point was driven home two days after the funeral, when he marched the Raiders into a packed stadium at three-time state champion Hereford. There, Loch Raven overcame an early 10-point deficit by scoring 26 unanswered points on the way to a stirring, 32-22, victory.

"Even dealing with the stress of Coach's wife passing away, we're still able to stay focused," said Hunter, 17, whose field goal during a downpour lifted the Raiders over Randallstown, 3-0. "We've been able to come together and do some very special things."

Loch Raven's sudden rise in Baltimore County has been as unexpected as it has been inspiring.

The Raiders, returning just four starters each on offense and defense from last season's team, dedicated the offseason to weight training and learning the fundamentals, determined to improve.

Not even losses in two of their first three contests - to once-beaten Parkville and No. 10 Milford Mill - could quell the enthusiastic Raiders, who impressively rebounded with a 28-point victory over Chesapeake and the shutouts of traditional county powers Randallstown and Eastern Tech.

Now part of a five-game winning streak that has the team in a first-place tie with Milford Mill (7-1 overall, 6-1 Baltimore County 2A-1A League), the triumph at Hereford made the Raiders (6-2, 6-1) only the fourth county team since 1995 to post a regular-season win over the Bulls. It also kept Loch Raven in the chase for both the league crown and for only their second postseason berth since 1984.

Loch Raven has remaining games against struggling Lansdowne and Overlea (6-2, 5-1), with the latter also contending for both the league title and Class 2A North regional playoffs.

"If you would have told me that we would go 3-0 against those three teams [Randallstown, Eastern Tech and Hereford] right in the middle of our schedule like that, I'd have probably taken that bet," said Gunn, whose son, Adam, is a 6-foot, 250-pound senior lineman for the Raiders.

Gunn attributes this year's progress to the players' offseason dedication to a strict, weight-training regimen and more organized and detailed scouting reports.

"This year's players are in great shape, that's the difference from last year. We have them better prepared so that they are never surprised by anything the opponent does," Gunn said. "The majority of the team worked very hard in the offseason and came into the summer camp in great condition."

Senior nose guard Elijah Moore (6-foot, 190), for example, reported to preseason camp as one of three Raiders capable of bench-pressing 300 pounds, a feat accomplished by only two others in 11 years previously, Lehman said.

Despite the Raiders' victories over Randallstown and Eastern Tech, Pumphrey said the atmosphere at Hereford was no less intimidating. The Bulls' 1,200-capacity stadium was crammed with screaming fans, most partisan to the home team.

"We knew that people there had already expected us to get blown out by Randallstown and Eastern Tech, and now we were in against another powerhouse team," said Pumphrey, 18. "But our confidence was really high. We were thinking: `To beat another team like that, man, wouldn't that be unbelievable?' "

Loch Raven led 6-0 only 12 seconds into the game, after junior Thomas Washington's electrifying 85-yard kickoff return. The Raiders, however, trailed 16-6 at halftime, allowing the Bulls and their boisterous home crowd to get back into the game.

But Hunter re-ignited the Raiders, whose run of 26 unanswered points gave them a 32-16 lead. He completed 17 of 25 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns.

"It was a complete effort on offense, defense and on special teams against a very well-coached, well-schooled football team," Gunn said. "This team has accomplished something that they will remember for the rest of their lives: They beat three outstanding football teams - two of them on the road - and those amazing stories will be some of the fondest and most vivid memories they'll have.

"No matter what happens the rest of the season, nothing can take that away from them."

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