It’s a different atmosphere around the Cougar Dome this year as the Quince Orchard football Cougars prepare to defend their Maryland 4A state championship.
Gone are the hunger and frustration of a team twice defeated in the state final in its previous two seasons. Gone are the sorrow and determination of teenagers catalyzed by the death of a teammate to play for something bigger than themselves.
Instead, QO returns with a nucleus of talented and experienced playmakers, a lot of new faces, and a big target on their backs as every opponent will be gunning for them starting this Friday night when they visit Wootton to open the 2019 season.
“We’ve been telling our guys all offseason … that 2019’s a completely different year,” said head coach John Kelley. “Doesn’t really matter what happened in 2018—it was obviously great fun. This is a new group of guys, a new team. They … have to write their own story.”
QO’s 2018 story was remarkable. After losing states to Prince George’s County powerhouse Wise in 2016 and 2017, the Cougars recommitted for another trip to the final. They rallied around a cause when former teammate Tyler Terry died early in 2018, and they dedicated the upcoming season to him.
The Cougars blew through the regular season with a 9-1 record, their only blemish a 22-14 loss to private school Bullis. They got revenge on Wise in the state semifinal, thrashing the Jaguars 31-6 in the Cougar Dome. Then they outlasted North Point, 40-33, in the final at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis to claim their long-sought state championship.
So coming into this season, the obvious question for the Cougars is: Can they play with the same purpose that carried them last year?
“This team still needs to find its identity,” is how Kelley put it, expressing confidence that they would.
“I don’t think we have the same intensity, because we had a certain thing we were fighting for,” said senior safety/linebacker Charles Bell, referring to Terry’s death. “We had to win—we didn’t have no other choice.”
Other seniors on the team thought this year’s Cougars are as focused as last season’s players. They just don’t show it as much.
“It’s not as loud, like intense, but we’re definitely all focused in,” said center Thomas DeCastro. “We got a lot more quiet people this year. It’s not a lot of … loud kids. We’re just as focused and we’re just as intense, but it’s a lot less open about it.”
“I think we’re the same intensity level because we don’t have that many vocal leaders,” said senior running back Marquez Cooper, an honorable mention All-Met last year. “But we definitely physically have even more than we had before.”
QO’s offense will look familiar, with Cooper projected as one of the top running backs in the Metro area this year and accompanied in the backfield by two experienced backs in versatile fullback Ryan Jones and breakaway threat Jeremiah White.
“Our identity’s probably going to stay the same,” said Kelley, referring to QO’s run-first, smashmouth reputation. “We’re going to do what we do.”
Cooper, who has committed to Kent State University, is some 250 yards away from becoming the all-time leading ground gainer in QO history, quite an accomplishment considering the illustrious array of Cougar ballcarriers in the past. He gained 2,021 yards on the ground last season and scored 39 touchdowns, and this season aims for more. In recent scrimmages against perennial Virginia power Westfield and private school Spalding, the 5-foot-7, 190-pound Cooper was the best back on the field, turning quick hitters into long gainers by running past, around and over would-be tacklers.
But QO’s offense may offer an added dimension this year. Quarterback Brian Plummer returns after leading the team to the state title as a sophomore. He appears bigger, more confident and ready to assume more responsibility both as a running threat and a passer.
“He’s a junior now,” said Kelley. “So it opens things up, opens the playbook up. Obviously, he’s very talented.”
Plummer will be throwing to an entirely new corps of wide receivers, led by starters Ryan Swigart (Good Counsel transfer) and Ryan Luke, with Jalen Frazier, Ikem Okoro, Ryan Allie and Paris Garey all expected to see playing time. And Bell, who proved to be an explosive kick returner last season, may also get some touches as a wideout.
“We got some good receivers,” said Kelley. “Fast, good hands.”
With all that talent eager to make plays, Kelley and offensive coordinator Ty Changuris have been repeating the mantra: “We’ve only got one ball.”
QO’s biggest area of concern on offense is a big one—both literally and figuratively. With DeCastro (245 pounds) the only returning offensive lineman, the O-line “needs some time to come together,” Kelley said. Tackles Nick Johnson (245 pounds) and Diego Turcios (295-pound Seneca Valley transfer), guards Dante Thompson (270 pounds) and Colin McCarthy (315-pound Good Counsel transfer), and tight ends Tahjon Moore (255 pound) and Justin Moran (190 pounds) offer an imposing amount of size and strength. But they aren’t as quick as last year’s line and don’t yet play with the same tempo or fire.
DeCastro sees his role as helping his new linemates get ready for the season by showing them “how QO offense is run. We don’t take plays off, we don’t pass a lot, we run the ball, we condition hard, we’re always down the field. … We just got to keep going and pushing through. We’re the engine in the train and they just got to get used to that.”
The defense, which will be coached by former Seneca Valley (and QO) head coach and new defensive coordinator Fred Kim, is anchored by its big, fast, tough and experienced front four. Steven Williams, Dejon Robinson and Marcus Bradley (DeMatha transfer) are the three down linemen and are all around 280 pounds, while nationally ranked recruit junior Demeioun Robinson (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) will terrorize opponents from the edge as a linebacker/defensive end.
Robinson has been rated by national scouting services as one of the top college prospects in his class and is bigger and faster than last year when he emerged as QO’s leading sacker after seeing little playing time early in the season. So far he has received offers from almost 20 Division I programs, including Louisiana State University, Tennessee, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.
Behind them, Bell, who has received offers from Maryland, Syracuse and the University of Pittsburgh, will return as a hybrid safety/linebacker where he can capitalize on his speed and ball-hawking ability. So will Toddreis Baltimore, who emerged last season as a reliable free safety.
The rest of the defensive starters are new. Jones and Moran will play two ways and see action as inside linebackers. Watkins Mill transfer Frank Yagaka will also rotate in at inside linebacker. Corners Will Simpkins and Ryan Barnes and safety Larry Hackey (Paint Branch transfer) fill out the secondary.
The secondary will get tested. They allowed several long gainers in the Westfield and Spalding scrimmages, albeit against very talented QBs and wide receivers. They will need to improve by late in the season when QO faces traditional rival Northwest in a game that will go a long way toward determining postseason seedings.
With six transfers among the starters, Kelley admits that it will take some time “just getting the new guys up to speed.”
The Cougars don’t have a lot of time, however, as they face perennial power Damascus in their home opener on Sept. 13.
Williams, a senior, said that he and other veterans have to get the new players “acclimated. … We try to help them as much as we can, open arms, family … simple.” They must also prepare the new guys for the high expectations that come with playing QO football.
“We let them know that we’ve got a winning mindset over here at QO,” said Bell. “We take winning seriously. We don’t like to lose. We let them know coming off a state championship that we want to win again.”
“That’s the goal,” said Kelley of winning a state championship. “Every year, that’s the goal.”
So can they repeat?
“Who knows?” the coach said. “We’ll see, I don’t know. … It’s a new year. That’s the good thing about football. … What have you done for me lately?”