Last year is fresh in the minds of Darius Victor and John Johnson. And all the Northwestern Wildcats, for that matter.
When the opportunity presented itself for Team Flex, a 7-on-7 football passing league team led by Northwestern quarterbacks coach Steve Rapp, to travel to the national championship tournament for the second consecutive year, the team comprised largely of Wildcats turned it down.
Instead, the players from Northwestern chose to forgo the trip and work with the rest of their high school teammates to prepare for the 2012 season — one the Wildcats hope could be a breakthrough that includes a playoff berth.
“We know we can compete with anybody in the county,” Northwestern coach Bryan Pierre said. “The guys actually believe they can do it. That's the difference from just saying it. We're pretty excited.”
Northwestern's passing league team will compete this weekend in the Prince George's County passing league tournament at Surrattsville and the Wildcats hope to avenge last year's loss against Frederick Douglass in the championship game.
“We got the invite [with Team Flex], but we wanted to stay with Northwestern and get ready for the season,” Victor said. “We'll miss it, but my only goal right now is to win the state championship. If that means I have to put aside Team Flex, then that's what I have to do.”
Pierre and Rapp both have noticed a newfound dedication to the program that begins with Victor in the weight room.
“The intensity in the weight room has turned up a bit, especially with Darius,” Pierre said. “He has been our strongest kid. Everybody expects him to be the strongest kid, but that doesn't stop him from pushing himself to new levels. The younger kids are looking at them and saying that's going to be me in a couple years.”
Victor and Johnson are at the forefront of Northwestern's increased dedication to the program this summer. Victor, a first-team All-Gazette running back in 2011 when he ran for 1,133 yards and 18 touchdowns, already has received three Division I offers (University at Buffalo, Howard University and the University of Charleston) while Johnson has offers from Buffalo, Bucknell and Ohio University.
Three times during last season's 6-4 campaign the Wildcats led their opponent at halftime, but went on to lose. Perhaps the most difficult of those losses was a 14-13 heartbreaker against Charles H. Flowers, which made the playoffs and won the 4A South Region title. Had Northwestern beaten Flowers, the Wildcats would have secured the third playoff berth in school history and the first since 2003.
“I think it is a blessing in disguise,” said Rapp of the close losses. “We played so many juniors last year. They struggled and went through a lot of adversity and still came out 6-4.This year, as seniors, when they're presented with the same opportunity they'll know how to go ahead and succeed.”
Difficult losses aside, 2011 marked the program's first winning season in 10 years. With the same schedule in place this season (which does not include games against perennial playoff teams Eleanor Roosevelt and Suitland), Pierre is hoping he can attract more players to try out and maintain grades so that he can expand the roster.
Last season, Northwestern competed with 26 players.
“Coach Pierre is making us bring one player to practice,” Johnson said. “Write their name down, make them come to practice. Every player has to do that or else we have to run. We're all trying to get that goal.”
In addition to Johnson and Victor, Quamy Sparman, Jovante Seard and Victor Tamba will lead a team that is confident it's on the verge of breaking through. Flowers, Roosevelt, Suitland and Henry A. Wise have dominated the Prince George's County 4A League for the past five years.
“It would mean a lot to me to say that my class did that,” Johnson said. “It would mean a lot because I want to break it so bad, especially because the teams that are in that four [Wise, Flowers, Roosevelt, Suitland], most of them aren't humble about it. I just want to prove to them that we can do it.”