On rosters, coach at Mervo thinks big

ON HIGH SCHOOLS

October 22, 2006|By MILTON KENT

The rain outside last week forced the Mervo football squads - varsity and JV, all of the nearly 100 players - into the hallway of the school gym, bringing all their teen spirit and the resulting noise with them.

It would be enough to drive most coaches to utter distraction, but Mustangs coach John Blake remained true to form, placid and calm, taking it all in stride.

Besides, it wouldn't have done Blake any good to complain about all those noisy kids clamoring around. The situation is all of his making.

"I'm the kind of coach that prefers to have a lot of kids on my team," Blake said. "Those teams that start with 30 kids, if you lose three or four kids or somebody gets injured, now you're at 21. How can you practice? How can you practice effectively and how can you endure four quarters of football? I believe in having a large roster, but with that comes some problems, because you're dealing with more people. I'd rather have that problem."

So far, having more to work with hasn't been much of a problem at all for Blake and Mervo, which, at 5-2 after Thursday's 16-6 win over Douglass, is primed to nab one of four spots in the state's 3A North playoffs. The school's track program is legendary and the boys basketball team advanced to the state semifinals last year, but the football team hasn't shared in that success.

Indeed, Mervo last made the state playoffs in 2000, the only trip in school history. The Mustangs nearly got in last year with a 6-4 mark, but the fallout from the Douglass fiasco - when the Ducks had to forfeit their wins because of the alleged use of an ineligible player - cost them a spot (in the state's playoff points system, a team is awarded points for each victory by a team it has defeated). The closest Mervo got to the postseason was to host a Class 1A regional final game between Dunbar and Poolesville.

But the Mustangs appear on more solid ground this season, thanks to all that depth, and a luxury that many city football programs don't have, namely continuity.

Blake has been at the school for 18 years. That longevity allows him to construct an operation that resembles, in theory, what a lot of the suburban schools do. His players know that Blake will be there and Blake can rest assured that he won't suffer overly large graduation losses or defections or absences.

"We don't really have that problem at Mervo, because we start working out for the season in January," Blake said. "We keep our kids together to the start of the football season. We do weight training early. So, there's never a time where we're not really in touch with our kids. They play other sports, but we're in touch."

The Mustangs have thrived this season with a stout defense that, save for a 42-0 drubbing at the hands of Edmondson, has kept opponents close, allowing no more than 16 points in any other game.

That defense is anchored by sophomore middle linebacker Derrick Jackson, who was called up to the varsity last year as a freshman, and also does duty as fullback, where he is the team's leading rusher.

Newcomer Jamal Lake, a transfer from Carver, has become Mervo's big playmaker, from both the wide receiver and cornerback positions. He caught two touchdown passes Thursday, and had two scores against his old school, including a 103-yard interception return.

Blake had what some would call coachable moments with Lake, but "once we were able to get him to understand that Mervo is a family place, and it took him a while to come around and he's still coming around as far as fitting in. I guess he had to get the feeling about how we were at Mervo and give more and more of himself."

"We're just playing," said Lake, with a smile. "We have a good team out there."

Good and young, as the Mustangs will return 30 players to the roster for next year. Most importantly, they'll have a steady, guiding hand to shape and mold them, hopefully into something special, come rain or shine.

"Our young men need role models," Blake said. "I'm always the first one here and the last one to leave. I try to be a role model and that's what our kids need. I don't cut anyone. You'll have to leave. I keep everyone."

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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