Classification changes in Montgomery County make picking a favorite for this season difficult.
In Class 4A, defending state champion Sherwood graduated a majority of its championship team. The Warriors' biggest competition the past few years, Quince Orchard, moved out of 4A and down to Class 3A.
Several Montgomery County teams appear to be vying for the role of preseason favorite in Class 4A: Paint Branch, Northwest, Wootton and Gaithersburg, while Walt Whitman, Magruder and Springbrook look to make the leap after solid 2008 seasons.
The battle for Class 3A could get dirty this season, with traditional playoff teams Damascus, Seneca Valley, Quince Orchard and Clarksburg looking to make it out of 3A West. Since last year's Class 4A state runner-up, Linganore, has moved down a class, while Tuscarora and Frederick of the Monocacy Valley Athletic League (MVAL) are also vying to make the 3A West playoffs, there is no doubt that some strong teams will be in the odd position of sitting at home in late November.
Class 2A will look much different this season, since Clarksburg and Northwood have moved up to 3A. Rockville returns much of last year's team and could be the favorite.
Bethesda-Chevy Chase will have a new head coach this season. Rich Noland takes over for Joe Allen and will try to improve on the 2-8 record the Barons have posted each of the past two seasons.
Gaithersburg returns 10 seniors and five starters on both offense and defense this season. Axel Ofori will start the season as the Trojans' starting running back after taking over that role midway through the 2008 season. As the main back in the latter half of the year, Ofori rushed for more than 600 yards, including a 216-yard, two-touchdown performance on Oct. 19 against Blake.
Two years ago, Magruder made its first playoff appearance since 1989, leading to higher expectations in 2008. But the team struggled and fell to 4-6. Now Magruder will be under first-year head coach Shawn Prather and without one of its better players, wide receiver/OLB Karim Jones (transferred to Quince Orchard).
Montgomery Blair was one of the turnaround stories of 2008. The team won a total of eight games in head coach Jeff Seals' three seasons, winning zero in 2007, but improved to 5-5 last year. The Blazers graduated 22 seniors from last year's team, but Alex Ebber is expected to return at quarterback.
To say Northwest had a rough offseason may be the understatement of the year. First-year head coach Mark Maradei took over in February and returns a plethora of talent, but starting running back Hassan Dixon was in a car accident that left his mother injured and the family dealing with the death of his 12-year old sister, Shiane Dixon. Two weeks after Dixon's accident, the Jaguars family suffered another blow when Edwin "Dek" Miller collapsed during conditioning drills and died on July 6.
On the field, the Jaguars have the talent to contend for a Class 4A title. Dixon is one of the best running backs in the county, and three-year starting quarterback Jarrhett Butler and four-year starting tight end/defensive end Ali Tolson return.
If Paint Branch can be considered a sleeper this year, the Panthers could be vying for their first playoff berth since 2000. In head coach Mike Nesmith's first two years, the Panthers have been knocking on the door of the Class 3A playoffs, heading into their final game against Damascus with a chance to make the postseason. The move to 4A this year could benefit Paint Branch since its former region, 3A West, was so crowded. Nesmith will rely on quarterback Tracy Martin along with three-year starters Torian Henderson and Ivan Tagoe to get the team back to the playoffs.
Richard Montgomery head coach Jeremy Lott, in his second year, loses quarterback Andre Brown, his most potent weapon. The graduated Brown amassed 1,876 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Returning wide receivers Jonathan Mensah and J.P. Hoover will try to help fill that void.
Sherwood is the defending Class 4A state champion, but the Warriors graduated quarterback Zach Splain, along with defensive standouts Thomas Huff and Steven Gamble, and will have a new head coach after the retirement of Al Thomas.
First-year head coach Pat Cilento inherits two returning starters on offense and three on defense. Among the Warriors' key returnees are consensus All-State kicker Andy Estrain, defensive lineman Greg Grant and offensive lineman Oliver Pettenati.
Springbrook graduated starting quarterback Phoenix Butler-Poole who was honorable mention Big School All-State last season. Eric Freniere, a transfer from Paint Branch, will attempt to fill his shoes. The 6-foot, 205-pound senior will have two talented receivers, Mitchell Pollard and Chris Tolbert, to rely on this season.
Walt Whitman is another team that will be trying to fill the void of a two-year starting quarterback. Anthony Young-Wiseman was an athletic quarterback who was able to make plays with his arm and legs, but head coach Jim Kuhn is very familiar with his new signal-caller. Junior Henry Kuhn started the final two games for the Vikings last season, throwing for 395 yards and five touchdowns. The Vikings also return their top rusher, Kevin Cecala, and top receiver, Larry Kline. Overall, the Vikings return eight starters on offense and nine on defense.
It might sound strange, but Walter Johnson's 1-9 record last season was a relief to players and coaches. With a 40-15 win over Poolesville, the team snapped its 36-game losing streak. This year, the Wildcats will have a new head coach as Jon Kadi replaces Tom Mulholland.
Winston Churchill improved to 6-4 last season, barely missing the playoffs, which they have not made since 2004. Former head coach Greg Neuendorf has been replaced by former Bethesda-Chevy Chase head coach Joe Allen.
Wootton is coming off its first playoff appearance since 1991, and Greg Malling enters his fifth season as head coach. The Patriots will be looking to make the playoffs again with some key pieces from last year's team. Three-year starting quarterback Mikey Mooney and Iowa recruit Stephane N'goumou have graduated. Seniors Alex Kelly and Jeff Porter will try to fill Mooney's shoes at quarterback; both saw some time last season.
Albert Einstein returns Montgomery County's leading rusher, Malcolm Crockett. The second team Big School All-State running back rushed for 1,506 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore and could be even better this season.
Blake once again will look to hand the ball to Kwabena Asante. The 5-foot-9, 190-pound running back was one of the best in Montgomery County last season, rushing for 1,422 yards and eight touchdowns.
Clarksburg has leapt into the elite teams in Montgomery County in a short amount of time. The football program began in 2006 and the team has made the playoffs in each of the past three seasons. The difference this year is the Coyotes move from the 2A to 3A West region and will face a more difficult schedule. Clarksburg opens with Seneca Valley and ends the season with Paint Branch, Damascus and Wootton. Head coach Larry Hurd returns several of his top receivers, including Andrew Veith and Sam Collins, but will have to replace the speed of graduated Avery Graham at running back.
Several coaches in the county have selected Damascus as the team to beat, not only in 3A but also in the entirety of Montgomery County. The Hornets return quarterback Connor Frazier, running back and linebacker Brian Lucas and receiver Brandon Phelps from a team that finished 7-4 last season. Frazier threw for 1,122 yards and 10 touchdowns and came back from a broken collarbone to lead the Hornets into the playoffs with a victory over Paint Branch in the final game of the year. Lucas rushed for 1,162 yards and 14 touchdowns and anchored the offense after Frazier went down to injury. Damascus has lost to Quince Orchard in each of the past three years, but this year's game in Week 2 holds even more significance as both teams will be looking for an edge in the 3A West region.
John F. Kennedy might have taken a step backwards last season, after compiling an 18-5 record in 2006 and 2007, but the Cavaliers have reason to be optimistic this season. Senior quarterback Ndubisi Ezekoye has been selected to the Maryland Crab Bowl, a top all-star game, and head coach Randolph Warren enters his second season at the helm.
This year, Northwood will look very similar to its previous incarnations. Quarterback Jimmy Hessler will be under center again, marking his fourth year as the starter, and he will have a host of receivers to throw to. Head coach Dennis Harris said he intends to throw the ball 35-40 times per game and will go eight-deep at receiver. The Gladiators will try to find a running back, and Harris has set a goal of getting at least 80 yards per game rushing from whomever takes the role.
At first glance, it could appear that Quince Orchard has the potential to fall off this year. After all, the Cougars graduated four Division I football players in Travis Hawkins, Terrence Stephens, Jason Ankrah and Cody Magill. Hawkins, Stephens and Ankrah were all consensus All-State players last season.
But do not expect there to be much decline this season for head coach Dave Mencarini. While Quince Orchard may not have the star power of last year's team, at least one assistant coach thinks this year's team could be even better than last season's 4A West region finalist that went 10-2 and lost only to state champion Sherwood. Karim Jones transferred from Magruder after recording 600-plus yards receiving and seven touchdowns as a junior. Ben Sasu returns to the backfield after rushing for more than 400 yards while splitting time with Hawkins. Last year's starting quarterback, Kevin Adams, is expected to move to wide receiver with the hopes that junior Drew Murphy will take over under center. Nick Gross and Tyler Magill will also be major offensive and defensive threats this year.
Seneca Valley has had one losing season in 30 years and has made the playoffs in 17 of the past 18 years. With that type of consistency, even with only one starter returning from last year's 12-1 team, expect the Screaming Eagles to be in contention again this year. However, of the teams expected to compete for the Class 3A West playoff berth (Damascus, Quince Orchard, Clarksburg, Linganore, Tuscarora, Frederick), Seneca Valley returns fewer starters and fewer returning players than any of the other teams in Montgomery or Frederick County. The team will be loaded with sophomores and juniors and might start only five seniors this season. As usual, Seneca Valley will be talented, with running backs Pierre Hinton and Kwame Rodgers expected to carry some of the load.
Watkins Mill head coach Joe Rydzewski enters his second season and has eight starters returning on both offense and defense. The Wolverines should improve on their 2-8 season, led by senior receiver and defensive back Fola Akinnibi. The offense will move to an I-formation offense to utilize running backs Doug Anderson and Gerad Kitre.
When Mark Maradei left Rockville for the Northwest position, he left the program in shape for Kevin Bernot. The Rams return 13 starters from last
year's 5-5 squad, a team that missed out on the playoffs by only one win.
This year's team features four players who were named Small School All-State (honorable mention) last year, including top prospect Robbie Parker.
The strength of the team will be the linebacker corps of Parker, Brandon
Bryant, Phil McTighe and Kevin O'Brien. Running back Crusoe Gongbay is one of the rising stars in Montgomery County after rushing for 1,450 yards and 20 touchodwns as a sophomore.
Wheaton, a perennial Class 3A school, is now in 2A and new coach Joe Ortega is hoping for a quick rise back to playoff contention. Wheaton won only two games last year, but returns seven starters. The team may only start five seniors.
Poolesville hit rock bottom last year, going 0-10. To make matters worse, Poolesville graduated its only two postseason honorees and moves from Class 1A to Class 2A.