Caleb Henderson is getting his warranted attention this preseason as Lake Braddock’s highly recruited quarterback. And rightly so. He’s carved up most Northern Virginia football defenses in his high school career, beginning with two seasons at West Potomac and continuing last year in his first with the Bruins.
He’s the reason three hi-def video cameras were on the practice field last Thursday, recording a segment for USA Today. He’s the reason hardly a day has gone by this August that a reporter hasn’t peppered head coach Jim Poythress with questions about a tough schedule that opens with Robinson, Stone Bridge and Westfield.
While it will be exciting to watch Henderson thread bullets downfield to A.J. Alexander (a junior wide receiver who has already received a scholarship offer from the University of Virginia), three other players will determine just how long the season lasts.
If Dwight Lomax, Trevor O’Brien and Reece Burnett make good on their promise, Poythress might just remember his 10th season at Lake Braddock as one of his best.
“O’Brien has the job; it’s his job to lose,” said Poythress of the 5-foot-7 running back who might be hard to find among taller linemen. “He was in the mix last year. I think it’s just a maturation process. Now’s his time, and he’s looked real good all summer and in the first scrimmage. We’re hoping he can give us quality numbers.”
It will be tough to match the numbers of Aaron Hollins, who broke out after the first couple games as a senior last year and finished as the Bruins’ top ground-gainer. But Poythress is optimistic about O’Brien, who is the fastest player on the team, according to Henderson.
“I’m pleased we’ve been able to run the ball more consistently than we have in the past,” Poythress said, thinking about the preseason’s first scrimmage against Osbourn, a team that will be competing with the Bruins for one of the 16 Class 6A North playoff berths this year. “Everybody knows we should be able to throw the football. We have a good quarterback and some good receivers. If we can run it, now we’re a completely different team. And our emphasis has been on that, and so far, so good.”
Henderson, while a prototypical big-armed quarterback at 6-3, 230, also has impressive straight-ahead speed and is tough to bring down near the goal line. If he and O’Brien can form a running threat, look out.
Leading the way for those burly runners will be the even more stout Reece Burnett, who at 6-1, 330, will be tough for even the biggest opposing linemen to dig in against. Burnett says he’s stronger and in better condition than he was last year, when he felt worn down after intense August practices.
On the other side of the ball is Lomax, an imposing senior defender who tacked on muscle and increased his quickness this summer. The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder will use that size and quickness to his advantage as he makes the switch from linebacker to defensive end this year.
The Bruins — who won seven straight games en route to the last Patriot District title before the state’s realignment, but lost to Oakton in a first-round playoff game — look the part of a postseason favorite. A couple of wins in their first three games – at Robinson and Stone Bridge, then back home against Westfield — should make their fortunes clear. But the question is, can they handle the distractions that come with having a star recruit and all the other issues that crop up during a high school football season?
Burnett thinks they can, and he’ll do his best to make sure players stay accountable for their behavior – which means no late arrivals to practice, no discipline problems during the school day, and a team that walks to the field Friday nights knowing all its assignments.
“It’s just little stuff that can make or break [the season],” said Burnett on a day where he arrived late to practice after his car wouldn’t start. “We can drift off sometimes. So I try to do the best I can to keep guys straight. To keep the team on the path we need to be going on. But I’m not perfect. I still do my best.”
Poythress, at 49, says his outlook is different than it was a decade ago.
“As I’ve gotten older I have less patience for discipline. I’m not as lenient as in my youth, because it just drains me,” said the man who has 64 wins and a winning record in all but two of his seasons at Lake Braddock. “What we want is no drama. We don’t want drama with the kids, we don’t want drama with the coaches, we don’t want drama inside the school. And the best way we can sniff that out is being consistent with discipline.”
Even though Poythress jokingly called himself “an old geezer” after hearing those words echo in the coaches’ office, he knows the difference between a team that can go deep in the playoffs and one that falters has a lot to do with maturity.
“We know our assignments. That sounds silly, but we haven’t had as many mental mistakes as we’ve had in the past early on. It’s the sign of a mature team,” he said.
And even if the maturity is a work in progress, Burnett believes most of his teammates are getting on board.
“There’s always going to be some kids who contradict what [Poythress] says,” said Burnett, after the head coach ended practice by telling his players “I’m not here to be your friend” in the midst of a speech about responsibility and second chances. “Over the past couple years it’s been getting better. When I first got here there were pretty boys who only cared about themselves.”
A focused season starts with the seniors like Burnett, Henderson, Lomax and O’Brien who hope to set an example.
“We’ve been together as a team for a long time,” Henderson said. “It’s been a lot of preparation and I think we could beat anyone right now.”