There’s a lot that’s new about this year’s Quince Orchard football team. They’ve got 15 new starters, many of them sophomores and juniors; a fresh infusion of speed and talent; and a hungrier, even edgier attitude. But some things don’t change: QO enters the season, as they have for the past decade, expecting to compete for a state championship.
The Cougars open their season in the Cougardome on Friday against Bethesda-Chevy Chase, still burning from last December’s 42-7 loss to Wise in the state title game. Though they say they’re thinking “one game at a time,” there’s no doubt that the championship loss is the engine that’s driven them through an offseason of weightlifting, conditioning and preparing for 2017.
“I feel like our kids are definitely hungry this year,” said John Kelley, entering his fourth year as head coach. “They’ve still got a sour taste in their mouths from how the season ended last year.” This, he said, is “a very competitive group.”
As junior linebacker and one of three team captains Johnny Hodges put it, “I just want to win.”
QO enters this season with many new faces fighting for playing time, including upperclassmen who have been waiting their turn, players moving up from junior varsity, and five transfers. That’s fostered a competitive climate that’s sometimes heated up preseason practices.
Neither Kelley nor the team’s leaders seemed concerned about occasional intrasquad chippiness, however. “None of them like to lose,” the coach said.
“We all still butt heads and we all still have big egos” said captain and left tackle Mike Fierstein, “so we’re all just trying to check one another’s egos and put everybody into place … even ourselves.”
“We’re competing with each other and making each other better,” said quarterback and fellow captain Kendall “Doc” Bonner.
In his third year as starting quarterback, Bonner is QO’s main guy. He’s fielded eight scholarship offers so far and is considered one of the best quarterbacks in the state. But, as Kelley said, he “has to perform like it for us to be successful this season.”
Bonner, at 6 feet, 195 pounds, can run and pass and has a slew of talented targets. Elijah Payne (senior) and Brendan McGonagle (junior) are big and experienced starters at split end, with speedy Aaron Derwin (senior) and Nahiem Howell (junior) explosive athletes in the slot. Seniors Dylan Wells and Kenny Williams and junior Aaron Green are also in the pass-catching mix, while Adam Leacock is the projected starter at tight end with Hodges and outside linebacker/defensive end Tyler Terry rotating in from defense.
Even with this air attack, however, the Cougars remain a run-first offense. Kelley will have his usual committee of ball carriers in sophomore scatback Marquez Cooper, Derwin (Middletown transfer), and Trey Wade (junior). “All three of those guys have their own skill sets,” Kelley said, with Cooper, the starter, a darter with quick bursts and changes of direction; Derwin, a slasher with straight-line speed; and Wade, a powerful 200-pound linebacker who punishes defenders.
Sophomore Ryan Jones, a transfer from Durham, North Carolina, and senior Zion Titus are the fullbacks.
QO traditionally prides itself on its offensive line, and this year is no exception. Seniors and two-year starters Fierstein (6-5, 280 lbs.) and Ramsey Richey (6-3, 260 lbs.) anchor the tackle spots, with seniors Logan Moyer (6-2, 220 lbs.) and Mark Echiverria (6-1, 265 lbs.) and Alec Burdette (6-0, 202 lbs.), a junior, new starters at guard and center. Jack Williamson rotates in at center and tackle, while Bryan Ramos will play some guard.
“It will take some time to get them up to speed,” Kelley said of the new players on the line, “but they got a big upside. Strong kids and can run. They’re going to be fine.”
The same can be said for the defensive line of three-year starter Desmond Johnson (5-11, 290 lbs.), Devonte Paige (5-7, 255 lbs.), and Ramos (6-0, 225 lbs.). They are stocky and powerful, and can occupy blockers to open tackling lanes for the linebackers and safeties. “They’re strong,” Kelley said. “They understand leverage, they understand hand placement, and they understand how to play that position. … Desmond Johnson is one of the best defensive linemen in the state.”
The Black Paw defense’s back seven is loaded with talent and versatility, starting with the (6-2, 215 lbs.) Terry, in his second season as linebacker/defensive end. He will line up all along the line, has speed, and likes to attack.
Hodges (6-2, 210 lbs.) and Wade (5-10, 200 lbs.) are fast, smart and tough inside linebackers, while the secondary of the versatile Derwin, Howell, sophomores Seckret Murphy, sophomores Ronell Dennis and Charles Bell, and Green as a hybrid safety/linebacker is the fastest and most athletic QO has had in a long time. They are also physical and aggressive.
Notwithstanding the influx of newcomers, the Washington Post ranked QO ninth in its preseason poll, and the Cougars were competitive in scrimmages against Westfield, H.D. Woodson, and Oxon Hill—also top 10 teams.
Kelley notes that many of the new starters have “been in the program four years. They know what to expect, they know what we expect of them.” As to players new to the school, “it’s just getting them acclimated to the way we do things here.”
Last year’s team prided itself on its closeness and “band of brothers” mentality. While they aren’t there yet, Fierstein said, “we’re definitely trying to build that brotherhood like we were last year. That was part of our success.”
The captains and coach are also wary of looking too far ahead.
“Obviously we want to get back to the state championship. But if we don’t win week one, week two, week three, then … we can be sitting home, we can be 6-4, and might not even make the playoffs,” said Kelley.
“We’re playing a bunch of great teams,” said Hodges. “We say that (we want to return to states), but we’re not really looking there yet. We’ve got a long way to go. Offense and defense both know that.”
Kick off on Friday, Sept. 1 at the Cougardome is 6:30 p.m.