POTOMAC – If you were not paying attention last year, you might have been surprised to find Winston Churchill High School near the top of the high school football standings.
The usual middle-to-bottom of the table team surprised everyone last year by finishing the regular season with just one loss; the challenge for the Bulldogs this year will be repeating that success.
Now, without leading rusher Patrick Richardson and starting quarterback Michael Janis, everyone is doubting the Bulldogs —at least that is what they are hoping for.
“We’re not the same team as we were last year. We’re different; we’re younger now,” said Head Coach Willie Williams.
Last year, Churchill finished the year 9-2, ending their season on a playoff loss to Northwest High School. In only two seasons, Williams took a county football backwater and made it into a potential power.
Churchill had a lot of turnover this offseason, as 18 seniors graduated while Offensive Coordinator and former Washington Redskins left tackle Chris Samuels left for Northwest. Players credited Samuels for helping to turn the team’s woes around.
Now with Samuels and key starters gone, the Bulldogs will look different.
“We just need to have people step up. You go through this every year. I’ve been around Churchill for 13 years, and you always lose guys,” Williams said.
Coming into this season, Williams said he has five players competing for the starting quarterback position, three seniors and two underclassmen. Admittedly, it will not be easy for Williams to replace Janis, who threw for 1,665 yards and 22 touchdowns, as there is no clear starter yet for Churchill.
Williams said that LeonDre Horsey, William Horton and Veron Talla are three of the names splitting snaps in practice. He will not decide who the starter will be until that last scrimmage before the season starts.
While key seniors are gone, as always is the case, new leaders will emerge. The confident, young players on Churchill don’t seem to mind the extra playing time that comes with losing 18 seniors to graduation.
“We’re excited; we want to make the plays,” said junior wide receiver and safety Josh Pilarski said. “Last year it was 3rd and six, and we’re just going to rely on MJ (Michael Janis) to run around, scramble and get it. This year, it’s on us, and we’re excited for it.”
On defense, which Williams said will be the strength of the team, is the Bulldogs’ returning senior, Rocco Tranquill, who started last season as an outside linebacker. Tranquill will also see time at running back this season, helping to fill in for Richardson, who rushed for 1,219 yards and 24 touchdowns last year.
Players credit coaching for the quick-changing fortunes of the program. Williams, a 13-year NFL veteran who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks, has convinced players and the community to buy-in. Williams is not implementing pro-style schemes into Churchill but he has helped bring a sense of professionalism, which has driven players to work out and prepare on their own time.
“We all wanted to win. We were done getting pushed around,” said senior offensive lineman Tim Rood.
The belief came early last year. Coming off a 5-5 season, few believed the Bulldogs to be a dominant team. While the players said they were confident coming into last season, they knew they were a good team after their 13-9 victory over Richard Montgomery in the season opener. The following week they blew out rival Wootton, and the Bulldogs never looked back.
Lead by Janis and Richardson, Churchill eased through their schedule, with blowout win after blowout win.
The 9-1 regular season ended with a tough bit of reality – a 56-20 loss to Northwest in what would be their second loss of the year – both to Northwest.
For a young program not used to playoffs, the speed of an elimination game came as a surprise to Churchill. They are hoping their experience will help carry them this season.
With a tougher schedule and coming off their most successful season in eight seasons, the Bulldogs are looking to prove that last year was not a fluke.
“It gives you a fire when everyone sleeps on you,” Tranquill said.
Churchill opens the season at home against Walter Johnson on Sept. 6.