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Even with another half to play against Madison last week and at least another three games to go after that, it looked like Thomas Jefferson High’s football season was headed for a swift and premature end. The beleaguered Colonials, fresh off demoralizing losses against Fairfax and South Lakes, found themselves staring at a 21-7 halftime deficit against Madison, not to mention intimidating matchups against Langley, McLean and Stone Bridge in the weeks to come.

If the season were a play, this is the part where Jefferson would traditionally take a bow and exit stage left, knowing full well that the mountain simply became too treacherous to climb from this point on. The undersized, under-manned Colonials had already cruised past the three easy obstacles on their schedule; only bigger, badder opponents awaited them from here.

But this isn’t your grandfather’s (or more accurately, older brother’s, given the school’s establishment in 1985) TJ football program. The 2012 squad pancaked stereotypes with a 6-4 record that put Jefferson in the playoffs for the first time since 2008, when they somehow snuck in with a losing record. With two important leaders from that team - Patrick O’Connor and Jack Brown - lost to graduation, this year’s group still clings to the belief that they can contend with anyone in their path.

So even without a comeback victory to speak of in recent years, the Colonials still believed they could come out in the second half and have their way with Madison.

“We really dug down,” senior fullback Kia Eskandarian said. “Coach told us at halftime to just play loose as if we had nothing to lose, and we went out and did. We had a couple injuries, and some guys who hadn’t really been on the field much in previous weeks really stepped up and showed everyone that they’re willing to do whatever it takes for this team.”

Coach Ken Kincaid’s squad faced more adversity coming out of the locker room. Madison’s offense drove inside the TJ 10-yard line and seemed poised to take a 27-7 lead, but senior defensive back Andrew Fountain recovered a fumble that breathed new life into the Colonials. Senior standout Nathan Kim took it from there, returning an interception 36 yards to the house on Madison’s next possession and then bursting 76 yards into the end zone on Jefferson’s next possession to knot the score at 21-21 going into the fourth quarter.

Heavy pressure on Madison quarterback Jason Gastrock by senior lineman Brian Welch and company kept the Warhawks’ offense at bay. Finally, with two minutes left on the clock, senior kicker Ben Carniol nailed a 35-yard field goal that handed Jefferson its first-ever victory against James Madison.

“We didn’t want last season to be our defining moment as a class,” said Welch, whose team improved to 4-3 on the season. “We wanted to make the playoffs in our own right.”

After the game, Kincaid called the triumph one of the most satisfying wins he’s experienced in over 30 years of coaching. He was especially impressed by the way his team responded to its 23-15 defeat against South Lakes a week earlier, when one touchdown and two near-touchdowns were called back by penalties.

“That was a bite,” Kincaid said. “That was the kind of game where you could have easily just let the anger go in a different direction.”

Whereas O’Connor, an all-region running back who now plays football at Davidson College, served as Jefferson’s senior leader last season, Kim has worked to become the glue holding everything together this year. With 975 rushing yards, nine touchdowns, four interceptions and a fumble recovery, he continues to give opponents nightmares on both sides of the ball.

Kim spent the offseason training alongside O’Connor, who carried the load for the Colonials at running back last year while Kim played mostly in the slot. Thanks to O’Connor’s guidance and a team weight-lifting program installed by part-time strength coach Brad Hill, Kim has built up a level of toughness and drive that has him ploughing through defenses every week out of the backfield.

“I’ve just been having a good season because of the guys in front of me,” said Kim, who fought through groin and hip injuries earlier this season. “They’ve been doing a great job, so that makes it easy.”

Having played football on and off for the past 10 years, Kim decided to give up basketball and lacrosse his sophomore year so that he could devote his attention to the gridiron. He hopes to pursue the sport in college, currently entertaining offers from Division 3 schools Claremont McKenna College (Cal.) and Case Western Reserve University (Ohio) while also talking to Johns Hopkins, Georgetown and Duke.

“He’s just a leader by example,” Kincaid said. “Everything he does is 100 percent. He’s played through numerous nagging injuries and never complained. He’s always there. He plays offense, defense, special teams. For the most part if you lead by example here, that’s all it takes with these TJ kids.”

Kim’s speed and determination have been paramount to Jefferson’s four wins, but he’ll be the first to tell you he’s just one piece in the puzzle. Senior quarterback Tim Zhong has thrown for seven touchdowns and run for five more, while Welch, Fountain, Daven Kim, Josh Fang, Albert Andrews and Parsa Zand have held strong on the offensive line. Welch, Andrews, Zand, Jason Kim, Wei Lin, Jimmy Wei and David Lanman have been equally effective on the defensive front.

Those players’ efforts epitomize the underdog spirit of a team that starts six guys both ways and boasts just one player weighing over 200 pounds.

“We’re scrappy. It’s an old-school word, but I don’t know what else to say,” said Kincaid, who’s also coached at Chantilly and Woodson. “We have to play low, we have to play hard. We’re aware of how big we are, but we just have to be better than our size.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com