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The Centreville Wildcats don’t seem to understand the concept of losing, and who could blame them? Just last year they vanquished one opponent after another, treating their 2011 schedule like a path of destruction all the way to the Virginia AAA Division 6 State Championship game.

Yet the art of the comeback is hardly lost on Centreville football. With 18 of 22 starters from last season’s Northern Region champions lost to graduation, the Wildcats entered 2012 needing to overcome significant odds if they wanted to keep their place near the top of the area’s pecking order.

A gritty performance in its season opener last Friday against Lake Braddock indicated that no challenge will cause Centreville to go weak at the knees this year. The Wildcats overcame a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit against one of the region’s most hyped teams, letting everyone know that the loss of important seniors won’t be equated with lowered expectations on Union Mill Road.

“People kind of counted us out because of how many seniors we graduated,” said senior running back Marcel Smith, who had four carries for 41 yards and a touchdown against Lake Braddock. “We wanted to come out here and show them that we’re not out of it, that we’ve still got game.”

Just as some counted Centreville out before Friday’s game, plenty of observers at William E. Trussell, Jr. Stadium probably counted them out after a fourth-quarter turnover seemed to derail the team’s chances at a comeback. Junior quarterback Scott Walter, in his debut under center for the Wildcats, had thrown a late third-quarter interception after he had marched the Centreville offense to the edge of the red zone. Then, on their very next drive, Walter threw another pick, this time on first and goal from the Lake Braddock 8-yard line.

A 27-14 lead with nine minutes to play appeared to give quarterback Caleb Henderson and the Lake Braddock offense just the cushion it needed to seal a big road victory.

“The truth of it is we’ve got a lot of kids with not a lot of experience, so we weren’t really sure how we were going to react,” Centreville Coach Chris Haddock said. “We knew we had a good opportunity to play a good team [Friday]. I wasn’t sure how it was going to all turn out, but the kids did a really great job responding and it was a real good litmus test for us playing a great football team.”

To the delight of nervous black-and-blue-clad onlookers in the stands, Centreville’s youth was the very thing that brought the team back to life. Suffocating pressure from the Centreville defensive front forced a three-and-out, and sophomore running back Taylor Boose - who led the Wildcats with 17 carries for 78 yards - barreled down the middle for a six-yard touchdown run that narrowed the score to 27-21.

Lake Braddock threatened to put the game away on the next drive, marching deep into Centreville territory with under four minutes to go. But the sophomore heroics were handed to AJ Turner, who intercepted Henderson inside the Centreville 5-yard line and returned it 39 yards down the sideline. With 42 seconds left on the clock, Turner struck again, this time reeling in a pass from Walter and scooting 14 yards into the end zone to set up a 28-27 win.

Turner ended the night with 61 rushing yards on nine carries, in addition to five catches for 59 more yards, part of an offense that generated all of its production from first-time starters. A relatively inexperienced defense, meanwhile, held a formidable Braddock attack to just seven first downs.

“This year we have seniors, juniors and sophomores really stepping up for us,” Turner said. “It’s not really one person being a leader; it’s really a team effort.”

Indeed, the loss of veterans from last year’s state finalist did not drain Centreville’s familiarity with winning. Last year’s JV football squad finished 6-1, and the freshmen team - which Turner played on - went 8-0. The loss of studs like state defensive player of the year Ken Ekanem and first team all-region players Manny Smith, Chase Walter, Matt Vlissides and Connor Coward were replenished with young talent hungry to make marks of their own.

Still, Centreville’s maturation process leaves the team with a ways to go before it can reach its full potential.

“It’s all a product of youth,” Haddock said. “You’re up, you’re down, you make a good play, you make a bad play. We’re a little bit inconsistent, and that’s a product of youth. We’ve got to work to get better and work to improve in a lot of areas.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com