When Gabe Sutherland and Manny Enriquez look back on last season, all they see are regrets scattered all over the field. A missed tackle near the goal line; a botched snap at the 40; a season-ending injury near midfield; disappointing losses everywhere. A series of crucial injuries crippled a team already thin in numbers, the result being four straight defeats that culminated in a 4-6 record.
One of those injuries hit Burke Bartow, the team’s centerpiece at the line of scrimmage who missed nearly his entire senior season with a bad back. Then there was the team’s best skill player, wide receiver Samer Abelmoty, whose senior campaign was sundered by a knee injury. Enriquez was next, breaking his wrist in the sixth week to keep him sidelined for each of those four season-ending losses.
“I was really mad, so I put in a lot of work in the offseason,” Enriquez said. “I’m making sure I don’t take any plays off so that I have no regrets this season.”
With Enriquez and Sutherland back to lead a strong senior class, there’s considerably more optimism on the Highlanders’ sideline this year. Sutherland, a region standout at linebacker and fullback last season, has a feeling his team’s fortunes are on the way up this fall.
“Last year was kind of a disappointment,” he said. “We have a big senior class, and we know this is our last chance, our last hurrah. So we want to win and go as far as possible. We’ve just got to stay focused and keep executing and playing hard.”
It helps that Dennis Worek heads a second-year coaching staff considerably more familiar with their personnel than they were a year ago. Like any new staff, Worek and company struggled last season to solidify which players belonged in which spots, a predicament exacerbated by the raft of injuries that kept coming at them throughout the fall.
“I even said to them at the beginning of the year, without even coaching them one day, ‘Look how much farther ahead we are this year than we were last year,’” said Fran Bedont, an assistant who coached alongside Worek at Hayfield Secondary in the 70’s. “Terminologies, they know what we want and we know what they can do, it’s just a more symbiotic relationship than it was a year ago.”
McLean welcomes back an improved offensive line highlighted by senior returners Ben Lafoon, James Howard and Connor Meyers along with senior Christian Raveling, who sat out last year. That burly group will make life easier for Sutherland, their hard-nosed downhill runner, as well as Amir Oueid, a shifty senior tailback. Enriquez has looked sharp at the wide receiver spot this offseason, as have fellow pass catchers C.J. Downey and Owen Pilewski. The quarterback position remains a bit of a question mark, with senior Danny Hecht and junior Brian Maffei battling for the starting job.
Sutherland will lead the defense from the linebacker spot, where he’ll line up behind Lafoon, Howard, Meyers and Raveling. Hecht and Enriquez will shuffle between linebacker and the secondary, where junior Jordan Cole and senior Topher McDonald will drop into coverage.
Among the team’s biggest goals this season will be to exact revenge on arch rival Langley, who walloped the Highlanders 27-7 in the traditional season finale last year. McLean players have been seeing big gains in their workouts ever since that week, in large part because all the plates in the weight room are ingrained with the message, ‘Beat Langley.’
Worek, who came out of retirement a few years ago to serve as the defensive coordinator at Thomas Jefferson before replacing Jim Patrick at McLean last year, coached at Langley for four seasons before embarking on a seven-year stint at Madison that featured a region championship in 1996. He’s seen the McLean-Langley rivalry intensify significantly since his days with the Saxons.
“When I was at Langley, the rivalry wasn’t quite as heated as it is now, didn’t seem it anyway,” Worek said. “In my first year both teams were 0-9 playing in the last game - we called it the Toilet Bowl. We were down by I think two touchdowns near the end and ended up winning. The student body came out and carried me across the field.”
Before they meet Langley, though, the Highlanders know they need to take advantage of a favorable early-season schedule. None of their first five games come against a team with a winning record last year; after that, they’ll face Stone Bridge, Fairfax, Madison, Jefferson and Langley.
“That’s our huge goal right there,” Sutherland said. “We want to go 5-0 right out the gate and just have a really great season.”