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(Enlarge) The Westminster High School varsity football team meets under the practice field goal posts to listen to head coach Brad Wilson during the squad�s first padded practice Aug. 19. Unity and preparedness are among the themes for 2008, as the Owls attempt to rebound from a 1-9 record last year in a season marred by injuries. (staff photo by Matt Roth)

The county's seven high schools will start their 2008 football journeys this Friday. Where those journeys will take them is anyone's guess.

In the 10 games between the Sept. 5 season openers and the regular-season finales Nov. 7, the most balanced group of teams in county football history will battle for supremacy and, more importantly, spots in the MPSSAA playoffs.

Three county teams made postseason appearances in 2007, and at least that number seem destined for the state dance this season.

Defending county champion North Carroll, Class 1A state semifinalist South Carroll and up-and-coming Liberty all have legitimate shots to repeat their 2007 playoff appearances.

But each of the other four county teams seem capable of a run to the postseason as well. Francis Scott Key made three consecutive playoff trips from 2004 to 2006, and Winters Mill was a postseason participant twice during that same period.

Westminster reached the Class 3A state title game in 2005, and even the fledgling Century program seems poised to take the next step after showing significant improvement in the past two seasons.

"Each of the teams has a lot of strengths," said Tony Shermeyer, Century's fourth-year head coach. "You look at the schedule and there are no guarantees.

"There's no bad team in the county," he added, "and (there's) the potential for some pretty good ones."

Century High Knights

Home Turf: 355 Ronsdale Road, Sykesville

Head Coach: Tony Shermeyer (fourth season)

2007 Record: 4-6 overall, 2-4 county

One win? Two wins?

Those days appear to be long gone for the Knights.

In the past two years, Century has tallied nine wins, more than the program won in its first five seasons combined.

In 2007, the Knights were competitive with nearly every team on the schedule during a 4-6 campaign. But as the program matures, the question falls to the 2008 campaign:

Can the Knights take the next step and make their first-ever playoff appearance in the Class 2A West Region?

This season could prove to be a breakout year for Century, which returns nine starters on both the offensive and defensive units.

The Knights will also offer opponents a fresh offensive look, with senior Luke Wright moving to tailback and junior Josh Bordner taking quarterback duties formerly held by Wright.

Shermeyer believes the move will help Wright, one of the county's quickest players, to become a even more dangerous force.

"Every team seemed to be keying on Luke," said Shermeyer. "With him at tailback, we can look at different options. Luke's more of a natural runner, and will be a key component of our offense."

Wright and Bordner will be joined in the backfield by senior fullback Cory Anderlik, one of the county's best blockers.

The trio will operate behind an offensive line that returns three starters. Senior Nick Wolcott will move to center, with veterans Matt Bodnar and Justin Rocker at guard spots. Bordner will have several passing options, including tight end Mike Conway and wideouts Adam Patterson, Mike Shinholt, LaBradford Brown, Robby Castor and Tyler Chavous.

"I think we'll have a good power game and also be able to run the ball outside," Shermeyer said. "Josh is a pocket passer with greater field vision, so our passing game should improve."

The Knights should field a strong defensive unit. Century will rely on its five-linebacker set to keep opponents out of the end zone. Bordner, who had a team-high nine sacks last year, will anchor a unit that includes Anderlik, Conway, Rocker and Zach Zile.

The Knights are also strong in the secondary with Wright, Brown, Patterson and Shinholt in the starting group.

"Our strength at linebacker and at the corners will enable us to use our blitzing schemes," Shermeyer said. "We want to have our defensive tackles get penetration and free up our linebackers to make plays."

Shermeyer is careful about setting goals for this team, but sees their competitiveness in nearly every game last year as a building block for the coming season.

"We only got beaten badly in one game last year, and we take heart in that," he said. "We're hoping that our experience can get us over the hump and into the playoffs for the first time."

Francis Scott Key Eagles

Home Turf: 3825 Bark Hill Road, Uniontown

Head Coach: Bill Hyson (third season)

2007 Record: 4-6 overall, 4-2 county

The Eagles found themselves in an unfamiliar position last fall. For the first time in four years, they were home for the playoffs in the Class 2A West Region.

Coach Bill Hyson's team finished with a 4-6 overall record, but four wins in six county starts enabled Francis Scott Key to finish third in the county and created a sense of optimism for 2008.

"We felt good about where we were at the end of last season," said Hyson, who is entering his third season as the Eagles' head coach after more than 25 years as an assistant. "With a break here and there, we could have easily had a winning record."

The Eagles lost two key players who are now in NCAA Division I-A schools. Lineman John Bassler signed with West Virginia and Brad Martz, one of Carroll County's top rushers the past two years, is in his first year at Temple.

While Francis Scott Key will be hard-pressed to replace Bassler and Martz, the Eagles always seem to find a way to reload.

Key will dress fewer players than in recent years, and several veterans will have to play on both sides of the ball.

"We're going to have to create some of our own depth by having players at more than one position," Hyson said. "Our school enrollment is down slightly, and our numbers are lower than we'd like to see. We may not have great numbers, but we have some athletes that can create good situations."

Unlike most county teams, the Eagles have resisted the urge to go to a spread offense and prefer to pound away at opponents with their running game.

This year, the offense should revolve around Tyler Bridges. The senior tailback was the perfect complement to Martz during the past two seasons, and now will be the unquestioned feature runner in the Eagle offense.

Bridges has bulked up to 215 pounds and should be more of a power runner. He will take his hand-offs from senior quarterback Brendan Blanchette, who became the starter midway through last season.

"You start with Tyler and Brendan, but we also have an offensive line that gained quite a bit of experience last year," Hyson said. "Tyler worked hard in our weight room during the off season. He's spent two years in Brad's shadow, and I'm really hopeful that he can have his turn in the spotlight now."

Key has traditionally played solid defense, and will count on several two-way players. Blanchette will lead the secondary from his safety position with Matt Mayhew, a county interception leader who Hyson calls "a ball magnet."

Bridges will add a physical presence at linebacker, and the Eagles will count on defensive tackles Buddy Ricketts and Earl Wisner and end David Grooms to stop the run.

"We don't have any superstars," Hyson said. "But we do have a group of kids that are capable of playing good team defense and work well together."

The Eagles begin with important county games against Westminster and North Carroll, one of four playoff teams on Francis Scott Key's formidable schedule.

"We lost some outstanding individual players, but we feel pretty comfortable with what we have," Hyson said. "We want to continue the progress that we showed late last season."

Liberty High Lions

Home Turf: 5855 Bartholow Road, Eldersburg

Head Coach: Jeff Kent (third season)

2007 Record: 7-4 overall, 4-1 county; lost in Class 2A West first round

Liberty entered 2007 with a 14-game losing streak, and that run of frustration extended through the first two weeks of the season.

Hungry for a win after 16 losses, the Lions scored a stunning 33-0 victory over Westminster in the season's third week.

It was the spark that engulfed the rest of the Lions' season.

Liberty ran off seven wins in its final eight regular-season games, securing the first state playoff berth in the school's 27-year football history.

Coach Jeff Kent's team lost a narrow decision to Middletown in the Class 2A West Region playoff opener, but the 7-4 season was a turning point for a program that was winless just a year earlier.

"This is an important season for us in terms of carrying our program on," said Kent. "We need to maintain that competitiveness."

The Lions should be formidable this year. Liberty lost quarterback Colton Weaver and linemen Sam Issermoyer and Mike Knox to graduation, but a slew of veterans guarantees the Lions will be a strong contender for the county title and another playoff trip.

The winner of the three-way quarterback battle will have plenty of offensive firepower. Senior Evan Proffen and juniors Geoff Suddath and Jordan Bode will inherit the reins of an offense that includes eight returning starters, including fullback Ethan Dorsey and a solid group of receivers in Jeff Shea, Rob Gicking, Cory Schwab, Trent Joseph, T.J. Pickler and Steve Wildberger.

Ean Wilson and Greg Belle lead a defense that returns six starters. The improvement of Liberty's defense was the key ingredient behind the team's march a year ago.

"We did a nice job controlling the ball last year, and that helped the defense a lot," Kent said. "We were able to eat up clock offensively. We want to have a good run-pass balance again this year."

For the second straight season, Liberty will not face defending county champion North Carroll due to a scheduling quirk. But the Lions still have to navigate a tough slate that includes three teams that reached at least the regional finals during last year's playoffs -- Middletown, Catoctin, and South Carroll.

Kent says his team is prepared to handle the challenge.

"The attitude is definitely different going into this season," Kent said. "We didn't know what to expect last year, but the turnaround made a huge difference. These guys are more confident and have a different perspective this year."

North Carroll High Panthers

Home Turf: 1400 Panther Drive, Hampstead

Head Coach: Jeff Oeming (third season)

2007 Record: 8-3 overall, 5-0 county (county champion); lost in Class 4A North first round.

Over the past two years, the Panther program has staged an amazing turnaround.

North Carroll went from 2-8 in 2005 to 8-3 last year in a campaign that included a county title and the school's first state playoff berth in 29 years.

The program has generated tremendous interest in the Hampstead-Manchester community, with a dramatic increase in game attendance and a greater number of players coming out for the team.

"We had over 60 players out for the varsity team and were forced to make cuts for the first time," said third-year head coach Jeff Oeming, architect of the Panther renaissance. "As a result, we went through more of an individual evaluation process during our preseason practices this year."

The increased player turnout was generated by the best Panther season in nearly three decades.

North Carroll won its first seven games, including a come-from-behind win at Thomas Johnson, and captured the county title with a perfect 5-0 league record.

Playing in the Class 4A North Region, the Panthers' season ended with a loss to perennial state contender Perry Hall in the opening round of the playoffs, but the defeat didn't halt the ascent of the North Carroll program.

What's in store for the encore?

The Panthers will have to replace key players who are now on collegiate rosters, including quarterback Stefan Mitchell, wide receiver Phil Sheppard and linemen Mike MacFee and Cory Redifer.

According to Oeming, the Panthers also have to remember the 2007 season is history.

"This year's team is this year's team," the coach said. "Right now, the only goal is to develop good practice habits and be as good as we can be for Joppatowne (the season opener)."

The 2008 Panthers will look different, too. While last year's edition played a power game, this group is the fastest that North Carroll has fielded in a while.

"We have a smaller but faster offensive line," Oeming said. "We're faster in the backfield and at quarterback. What also helps is that we're in tremendously good shape, and that allows us to practice harder and get more done."

Casey Mann, a senior who made big plays at tailback, and junior John Shipley are battling to succeed Mitchell as the starting quarterback.

They will be complemented by a group of receivers including returnees Zach Westfall, Carl Smith and Jesse Rogers. Jake Carroll, the top running back on North Carroll's 7-2 jayvee team last fall, and senior Cory Cianfarini will carry the load in the backfield.

"Both Casey and John are very good runners, and our opponents have to be concerned about Westfall as both a runner and receiver," said Oeming. "It's an advantage for our quarterbacks."

Anthony DeStefano and Dylan Ewen, standouts in 2007, anchor the defensive line. Cianfarini and Ethan Wheeler return at outside linebacker, and the senior secondary includes Josh Yacovissi, Cory Ridenour and Justin Bailey.

The Panthers face a difficult schedule that includes Class 1A state semifinalists Joppatowne and South Carroll and a brutal second-half stretch that features consecutive games against perennial contenders Thomas Johnson, Linganore and Urbana. But Oeming is confident.

"We have a good work ethic," he said. "Hopefully, we can gather momentum, gain confidence and establish consistency."

South Carroll Cavaliers

Home Turf: 1300 W. Old Liberty Road, Winfield

Head Coach: Greg Mihalko (fourth season)

2007 Record: 7-6 overall, 2-4 county; Class 1A North Region champion; lost in Class 1A state semifinals.

With a shrinking enrollment, South Carroll moved to Class 1A before last season.

The shift was expected to help the Cavaliers earn a berth in the playoffs, but that seemed remote when South Carroll lost five of its first eight games.

A huge 21-7 win over Liberty in the season's ninth week started a four-game winning streak.

After the Cavaliers earned their third state playoff invitation in five seasons, post-season wins over Chesapeake and Catoctin gave them the regional championship and a spot in the Class 1A state semifinals.

There, a loss to eventual state champ Dunbar ended the season ... but not the high hopes.

"We want to use last year as a reference point," said Greg Mihalko, now in his third year as the Cavaliers' head coach. "We want to think about how we got there and then take the next step to make it happen again. ...

"Our focus now is to be mentally and physically tougher, and hopefully advance one more game."

A return to the states won't be easy. The Cavaliers must replace tailback Greg Tellish, the county's leading rusher last fall, and tight end-linebacker Trevor Terpening, who was a fiery and productive presence on both sides of the ball.

Senior quarterback Ryan Weaver will lead an offense that returns six starters from last year's 7-6 team. Damian Bosiacki, a hard-running senior who backed up Tellish last year, will probably get the bulk of the carries.

"We'll have more of a team emphasis in our running game," Mihalko said. "Somehow we'll have to find a way to get those tough yards that Greg provided last year."

While the offense performed better in the second half of last season, the defense was the driving force behind the team's move to the post season.

In the four games preceding the Cavaliers' state semifinal loss, the defense allowed only 28 points, and in the regional championship, the Cavaliers held Catoctin to just six points after surrendering 31 in a regular-season loss.

Several of the defensive stalwarts are back. Junior Sam Wright and seniors Zach Schmid and Devon Tober are forces on the line, and Mihalko feels returning middle linebacker Adam Slatniske will be one of the county's best players.

After starting with Williamsport, the Cavaliers face two county rivals, Westminster and North Carroll, in consecutive weeks.

Despite their success at the regional level last year, the Cavaliers finished with just two wins in six county games.

"We don't want to have to rely on another strong finish to get us to the state tournament, because that's not automatically going to happen," Mihalko said.

Westminster Owls

Home Turf: 1225 Washington Road, Westminster

Head Coach: Brad Wilson (fifth season)

2007 Record: 1-9 overall, 1-5 county

No team is more happy to see a new season than the Owls.

Beset by injuries that forced the coaching staff to move not only a wide receiver, but also an offensive lineman, to the running back position, the 2007 Owls slumped with eight straight losses at the end of the season and closed with a 1-9 mark.

The disappointing finish didn't hurt the turnout for the Owls, who welcomed 165 players to their first practice sessions Aug. 16.

The Owls will count on the county's largest senior class to end a rough stretch that includes just five wins in the two seasons since Westminster reached the Class 3A state championship game in 2005.

"You have to give credit to the kids," said Owl head coach Brad Wilson. "They want to be a part of our program. Each year we want to keep building that foundation, and our goal is still to have the best program in the state."

Wilson, now entering his fifth year as the Owls' head coach, begins the season with 42 returning players and 36 seniors. He hopes the veteran group will lift Westminster back into the race for county honors.

"Senior leadership is so important, both on and off the field," Wilson said. "We carried just 11 seniors on last year's team and finished with just six healthy ones.

"It's unheard of to have 36 seniors on the roster," he said. "We return nine starters on both sides of the ball. On paper, it all fits, but we still have to go out and do what we're supposed to do."

On offense, the Owls will be strengthened by the return of four-year varsity lineman Brett Baer.

"Brett has the experience and was able to be a part of that great season (in 2005)," said Wilson, who will also coach the offensive line this year. "He's also been through the tough times the last two years. But it's going to take all 42 veterans to make it go."

Junior quarterback Andy Gilford will have some promising options in the Owls' spread offense.

Senior Josh Booker and junior Jimmy Yingling will be Westminster's primary running backs, and the Owls will still line up with four or five wide receivers.

"I've seen the progression in Andy during seven-on-seven and team camps," Wilson said. "Andy's a year smarter and stronger, and he's playing with more confidence."

Wilson will field the most experienced defense in his five years at Westminster. Ten of the 11 defensive positions will be occupied by seniors.

"Right now, I feel the defense is the strength of this team," he said. "Javon Curry is going to be a great defensive lineman. We've got Brett Baer at linebacker, and we also moved some people from the offensive line to defense."

If Westminster wants to make its move, it'll need a successful first month.

The Owls' September schedule includes Francis Scott Key, South Carroll, Liberty and local rival Winters Mill, followed by consecutive October dates with powers Urbana and Linganore.

"I learned a long time ago not to bring what happened the previous season into the current one," Wilson said.

"We're in total control of what happens this year," he added, "and that's going to be our approach."

Winters Mill Falcons

Home Turf: 560 Gorsuch Road, Westminster

Head Coach: Ken Johnson (sixth season)

2007 Record: 4-6 overall, 2-4 county

The Falcons might be regarded as a team on a mission in 2008.

Winters Mill missed the playoffs for the first time in three seasons last fall, after an inconsistent year that resulted in a 4-6 record and just two county wins.

Coach Ken Johnson's team is hungry to get back into the post season after earning playoff berths in 2005 and 2006.

"I think (the playoffs) is a very attainable goal for this group," Johnson said. "We have several seniors with tremendous leadership qualities, and they've been holding the bar high throughout our off-season program."

A trio of talented seniors will be the key to Winters Mill's campaign.

Quarterback Ben Love, generally regarded as the county's top signal caller, threw for more than 2,000 yards last fall.

Love lost his favorite target when 6-7 wide receiver Rashad Blackwell graduated, but he can rely on the talents of three-year varsity veterans John Shaw and Zauhn Lewis. Shaw may be the fastest player in the county.

"Those three players jump out right away," said Johnson, now in his sixth year at Winters Mill after stints at Liberty and Randallstown. "They are true leaders who the other players are willing to follow."

The Falcons' biggest challenge is replacing an offensive line that lost the best player in school history. Jeff Braun was a prized recruit for West Virginia after dominating opposing defensive linemen for the past four years.

"Jeff was a one-in-20-years player," Johnson said. "With Jeff leaving, we will be smaller than we were last year. But we actually might be stronger, because of our players' commitment to the weight room."

In an offense that loves to pass, Love will have the opportunity to throw to three standout receivers in Shaw, Lewis and Scott Bowersox.

Johnson feels his passing game is far ahead of last year's attack, but is striving to make the offense more balanced. Shaw, Derek Zaruba, and Chad Sparks all return to the offensive backfield.

"We have a number of skilled runners, and with a smaller and more mobile line we should be a much better run-blocking team this year," Johnson said.

Joe Carico and Jeff Krumrine will anchor the defensive line. Lewis and Kyle Fendlay should make plenty of tackles from their linebacking spots.

After facing only one county team in the season's first half, the Falcons will take on North Carroll, Liberty, South Carroll, Century, and Francis Scott Key to close the campaign.

With more consistency, the Falcons could be as strong as any Carroll team.

"We lost only one game by more than a touchdown last year," Johnson said. "The difference was three or four plays a game. We could have easily been 8-2 or 2-8."

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