When you win back-to-back state championships at the highest level, you might think that would allow for some swagger, but the Northwest Jaguars head coach Mike Neubeiser will have none of that.
The Jaguars have lost just three times since 2012 on the way to two straight State Championships. In 2013, they fell to Gaithersburg and Clarksburg, and last season they lost in a regular season meeting with Quince Orchard.
“We're a completely different team,” said Neubeiser. “We are actually underdogs in most people's eyes because Quince Orchard is such a big and powerful team.” However, it is important to remember that the Jags did avenge last season’s loss to QO with a playoff victory later in the season. But, Coach Neubeiser believes that his team, which returns senior quarterback Mark Pierce -- who has already led two teams to two state championships, is seen as an underdog.
Pierce threw for 29 touchdowns and over 2,000 yards in 2014 in the Jags run to the title game in Baltimore.
“Having Mark Pierce helps you win games,” concedes Neubeiser, and then in the next sentence says, “We don’t talk about a three-peat. Our goal is to be the best football team we can be. We just want to maximize our potential. If we do that, we'll be in the hunt in late November.”
Pierce will be throwing the ball to a new corps of receivers this year which will include senior Ibrahim Konate and junior transfer Reggie Anderson from Oakdale.
The Jags did lose a potent offensive weapon when running back E.J. Lee graduated in June, but Neubeiser believes that Northwest will feature several good backs this season, including junior Khalil Owens, who had some impressive runs last season as a sophomore. “Khalil Owens has looked very good this summer,” said Neubeiser. Owens will be joined by sophomore Juwon Farri, junior Wesley McCormick and freshman Latrele Palmer.
Neubeiser said the Jags biggest loose was the members of the O-line, which opened holes and backs and kept Pierce protected. “We lost some good linemen to graduation, but we have some big, tough kids who are stepping in to fill the void. They are a big physical group,” he said. The line will be led by seniors Tarik Manna and Alex Henning, as well as juniors Cole Cheripko and David Riggio, and senior Zeke Gandy at tight end.
On the defensive side of things, the Jags will look to seniors Caleb Gills and Martin Foray to lead the defense this season. “They are both three-year starters and have looked great this summer,” said Neubeiser.
In the spring of 2015 the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association announced they were reworking the makeup of the schools in each division, and the result is a Northwest is no longer in the 4A West, but rather the 4A North.
The new division will consist of Northwest, Clarksburg, Gaithersburg, Richard Montgomery and Wootton. Perhaps the biggest change is the moving of Quince Orchard to the 4A South, with Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Churchill, Whitman, and Walter Johnson.
“It doesn't really change things having QO outside of our division because we still play them,” said Neubeiser. “Gaithersburg, Richard Montgomery, and Wootton will all be tough and improved teams this year, and Clarksburg is always one of the top teams in Montgomery County. Clarksburg beat us two years ago and almost beat us last year. They are a very athletic and well-coached team.”
The Jags will open the season on Friday night by traveling to Gaithersburg in a game that will start at 6:30 pm. Northwest is 9-3 since 2005 against the Trojans, beating them last season 48-0. “Being a Gaithersburg grad though I can tell you Gaithersburg will always hold a special place in my heart,” said Neubeiser. “I'm really looking forward to going there and playing in the new John Harvill stadium. It's a beautiful atmosphere for high school football. Gaithersburg will be a very tough team this year. They are big and have a lot of great athletes.”
The Trojans are an improved team with a senior running back in Marquel Simpkins and a receiving threat in Denzel Dalton. “We have to play fast and disciplined defense. We can't afford to have blown assignments or missed tackles. We have a lot of work to do to get ready for the challenge,” said Neubeiser.
Top: Northwest quarterback Mark Pierce returns for his senior season after leading his team to back-to-back state championships.
Next: Northwest will look to senior running back Khalil Owens (4) to step up to fill the big shoes of E.J. Lee, who graduated last season.
Next: The Jags hope to continue to get great defensive play from senior defensive back Martin Foray (2) this season, as they hunt for their third straight state championship.
Photos by Germantown Pulse.