All signs point to Centreville’s return to glory this season. The Wildcats return 15 starters from last year’s undefeated state champion. At least 10 of them are bound for Division I football in the near future, their most prized recruit heading to SEC juggernaut South Carolina next year.
They’re stacked. Everybody knows it.
All the hype swirling around the Wildcats — much of it amplified by their unusual home opener against private school power Gonzaga next week — only adds to the team’s powerful mystique. Attention has been lavished on Centreville from media outlets in all directions, including a three-part series about the 2014 team from yours truly. The fascination is justified — after all, this could be one of the greatest high school football squads ever to come through Virginia.
But I’m not picking them. The weight of history leans against a Centreville team that will face a hardened slate of opponents this year.
Defending a title is never easy, no matter the level of competition. Since 2004, no Super Bowl champion has been able to win a playoff game the year following their triumph, let alone defend their title. More relevantly, no Division 6 football team has been able to repeat a state championship so far this century. C.D. Hylton remains the only school to win back-to-back state titles in the last 20 years, their triumphs in 1998 and ’99 also making them the only program in Division 6 to ever go undefeated two years in a row.
Even Centreville’s overwhelming stable of talent doesn’t make it immune to an off day. All it takes is one subpar performance to sabotage an entire season, one uncharacteristic mental lapse that snowballs into crushing momentum for the other side.
Westfield fell victim to that reality in 2012. The undefeated Bulldogs appeared to have a championship locked up when they entered the region final on their home turf against an Oakton team that lost its last four regular-season games. Westfield boasted the area’s best defense and most dynamic offense, a combination that gave them an average lead of 29 points heading into the fourth quarter of their previous six games. But they came out flat on that freezing November afternoon, and Oakton took full advantage with a 23-7 second-half lead that Westfield couldn’t overcome.
Centreville did well to avoid a similar fate in last year’s regional quarterfinals. South County jumped out to an early 21-0 lead in that game, but the Wildcats stormed back to win 55-35. The big question is whether they will respond similarly if they find themselves in the entirely unfamiliar scenario of trailing in the fourth quarter at some point this season.
Centreville’s main problem this year might be that teams like South County and Westfield will be better prepared for them this time. Coaching staffs around the region spent the offseason dissecting film and explaining to their players exactly what it will take to dethrone the state champs. Some of those coaches are extra motivated — South County head man Gerry Pannoni is itching to beat the team he once coached, and Westfield’s Kyle Simmons feels the pressure of needing to finally get over the region championship hump that has stymied his program each of the last three years.
In my mind, those are the two teams best positioned to end Centreville’s run. Pannoni calls his group by far the most athletic he’s had since taking over at South County. The Stallions are deeper than the Mariana Trench this year, which should make them ready to strike when the playoffs arrive.
Westfield graduated Tyler Thrasher-Walker and some key guys on the line, but three-year starting running back Evan Gray and senior leader James Gibson lead a hungry group that has more than reloaded this season.
Yet even with all that weighing against them, Centreville has looked ready for its title defense this year. Players have given no indication that they’re any less hungry to get back to Charlottesville, and aside from a minor wrist injury to star tailback AJ Turner, they look good on the practice field these days.
“We’re going to be playing basically the same people,” Centreville coach Chris Haddock said. “[Opponents are] targeting us just like we’re targeting them, and the fact that we won a bunch of games last year really doesn’t matter anymore.”
The Wildcats have everything it takes to run the table again this fall. But I won’t be surprised if they don’t.