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In sports, losing can become an unwelcome tradition. Many pro franchises and collegiate teams have never played for major championships.

For some, just making the playoffs is nearly impossible.

But chances for a turnaround are better in high school football. As recently as the fall of 2005, football programs at North Carroll and Liberty were enduring difficult times.

North Carroll finished 2-8 that season, while Liberty was just a victory better at 3-7.

In 2006, the Panthers improved to 4-6, but Liberty slid to the first winless season in school history.

Then came 2007.

North Carroll won its first seven games and claimed the county title, posting an 8-3 record on the way to its first appearance in the state playoffs since 1978.

For Liberty, the change was even more dramatic. After two losses that extended their losing streak to 16 straight (over three seasons), the Lions won seven of their final eight regular-season games and nailed down the first playoff berth in the school's 27-year football history.

The turnarounds were inspired by a couple of "Jeffs" who took over their programs just two years before those playoff appearances: Jeff Oeming at North Carroll and Jeff Kent at Liberty.

Oeming's Odyssey

Oeming grew up in Saginaw, Mich., and played the game at Elmhurst (Ill.) College. He graduated there in 1975, and spent the next 11 years coaching football in his hometown.

He came to Maryland in 1986, after accepting his first head coaching position at North Carroll. He spent two seasons during his first stint in Hampstead, and saw the program shake its losing ways.

"I didn't think our players at North Carroll in the 1980s were any different than the ones I coached at Saginaw," Oeming said. "They just needed a new formula. They needed to believe, and we won five straight games in my last year there."

After North Carroll's principal moved to Westminster High, Oeming followed and took over the Owl program in 1988, staying through the 1993 campaign. In six years Oeming led the Owls to three county titles and two Central Maryland Conference crowns.

He left coaching and took three seasons off before returning to the Owls as an assistant, 1997-99.

"I've tried to leave the game a couple of times," Oeming said. "But I've played and coached since I was 6 years old, and when falls rolls around it's time to play again."

He left Westminster for a similar position at Baltimore's Loyola High School, where Oeming spent six seasons before the North Carroll job opened up in 2006.

"I wasn't actively looking for a head coaching position at the time, but the North Carroll job seemed like a good fit," Oeming said. "Several of their coaches, including Tim Greenwood, Rob Johnson and Chris Arthur, had played for me during my time there in the '80s."

Oeming has since guided the Panthers to the top of the county, but he values the sport beyond the winning of championships.

"High school football is one of the greatest educational experiences," he said. "I want to make sure that all the athletes in our program have the most positive experience. From the top player on our team to the reserves, I want to make sure that every kid is treated fairly."

Oeming points to another influential factor in his decision to stay in the game at the high school level.

"Back in Saginaw, Mr. Little was my ninth grade coach during the 1967 season," he said. "He always told me that coaching kept him young. He's probably my best model, because he was in it for the kids."

King Lion Kent

Kent also worked his way through the ranks, serving as an assistant at four other high schools before landing the head coaching job at Liberty in 2006.

He spent much of his youth in Parkersburg, W.Va., a sports-rabid community that finished second in a recent ESPN summer feature called "Titletown USA."

After playing football for and graduating from Fairmont (W.Va.) State College in 1988, Kent decided he wanted to stay in the game.

"I actually started coaching during the spring semester of my senior year at Fairmont," Kent said. "I expressed interest to my head coach, and just started coaching from that point."

He tried college first, serving for three years as an assistant at Frostburg State University. He's been coaching high school ever since.

Kent spent four seasons at Glenelg and was on the Westminster staff from 1996-2001. After a two-year stint at Winters Mill, he spent a year each at Westminster and Century before the Liberty job came open.

"I've benefited from every experience," he said. "I learned the spread offense from coach (Brad) Wilson at Westminster. Two of my current assistant coaches were guys I coached with in the past -- Jay Umholtz at Century and Lance Evans at Frostburg State."

Kent has built Liberty into a burgeoning power. The Lions return a host of talent from last year's 7-4 team, and should be a force for years to come.

"This year is so important for us," said Kent. "We have to keep it rolling and validate the philosophy that we brought to this program and that we believe in."

But Kent is not consumed by wins and losses. Like Oeming at North Carroll, he enjoys working with student-athletes.

"I love football, but there are more important things in life," said Kent, who believes in the same principles as coaches like UCLA's John Wooden and Tom Osborne of Nebraska.

"I've read a lot of books, particularly by Wooden and Osborne, which helped shape my philosophy. They knew that it was about much more than winning games.

"It's about the time you spend with the kids at practice, in the weight room, and preparing for the game," he said. "These kids have more worth than in just being football players."


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