There is no getting around it. When Westlake head football coach Tony Zaccarelli looks out at this year’s team, it lacks much of what last year’s Southern Maryland Athletic Conference Chesapeake Division champion Wolverines had, namely experience.
But Zaccarelli sees some other things, too. He sees a group that has a thirst to learn and a team that can become whatever it wants to be.
“They have a huge amount of potential,” Zaccarelli said. “Their ceiling is unlimited right now. With the amount of youth that we have, these kids are willing to listen, learn, try after failure, try again and keep learning. What I love about this group is they want to be taught. They want to play football the way it’s supposed to be played. We haven’t always had that for an entire team. We’ve had pieces that were like that, but not the entire team. It’s refreshing.”
Last season’s senior-laden group ultimately went undefeated in Chesapeake Division play and qualified for the Class 2A South Region playoffs, earning a spot in the field with a heart-stopping 32-27 win at Calvert in the regular season’s final week.
But the season started in rather inauspicious fashion, as the Wolverines followed up a season-opening win against Friendly of Prince George’s County with consecutive losses to North Point and St. Charles to leave no margin for error over the season’s final seven weeks. They did not have another misstep, winning seven straight to close out the regular season and earn a playoff spot.
“All the guys who played on the varsity team last year know the amount of work that was put into reaching the position that last year’s team was able to reach,” Zaccarelli said. “Winning a conference championship is not easy. Making the playoffs is not easy. They bring that experience to the table and can try to get the other guys to learn, ‘This is the way we do things.’ Now we only have a small sample size of guys who can lead in that direction. They’re doing a great job right now. Our guys are working hard day-in and day-out.”
Westlake’s season did come to a disappointing end with a 3-0 loss to Howard County’s River Hill in the postseason’s opening round. The Wolverines outplayed the Hawks, but were unable to take advantage of their opportunities and lost on a field goal with eight seconds remaining in the game. This time around, senior Nigel Harrison expects more.
“This year we’re capable of going to states instead of losing in the first round of the playoffs like last year,” he said. “We need to work on staying more focused, not letting things get to our head. ... It’s going to be paying attention to details.”
“We have a lot of things to clean up, a lot of things of miscues, a lot of penalties,” added senior Nitrell Freeman. “There are a lot of little things, discipline. We have a lot of things to fix, little things though. Other than that we should be fine.”
Discipline is a key word. Having grown up around and played in the program himself, Zaccarelli is well-versed in the history of Westlake football looks at his team’s discipline as a critical component to the team achieving what it would like to.
“We have to maintain discipline,” he said. “I think our pitfalls in years past when we’d make the playoffs were we’d get undisciplined in the playoff games. We didn’t finish drives, we had penalties, we had turnovers. There are little things in a game that add up. For us to sustain success we have to work on those little things and discipline issues.”
For the Wolverines, it starts at home at 7 tonight against Fairmont Heights of Prince George’s County. A trip to North Point awaits in the season’s second week, with a trip back to Calvert on the slate the week after.
After having to work so hard to reach the playoffs a year ago, this year’s expanded playoff field will ease some of that pressure, though it’s not just making but doing well in the playoffs that is the ultimate goal.
But right now the team’s focus is not on things that far in front of them.
“For us as we go through and talk to the guys about playoffs and that there are more teams making the playoffs, our goal for them is let’s win as many games as we possibly can,” Zaccarelli said. “If we can win them all, let’s win them all. That’s always the goal. If we can go 9-0, that’s what we want to do. ... I think our guys have that type of mentality.”