Same position, different path

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

ALBANY -- When Tony Zenon arrived at football camp this summer for the first practices in the defense of the 2008 GISA Class AAA state championship, he couldn't help but be a little bored.

The previous summer, the Knights took the previous season's playbook and started building on top of it. It would build into a complex offense and defense that led the way to the school's second state football title.

This time around, there was no building, only walkthroughs. Coach Allen Lowe addressed a team with only eight seniors and four returning starters and regressed back to the basics: Deerfield-Windsor football, Chapter 1.

"Coach Lowe had to reteach everything," Zenon said. "We were walking through everything and saying, 'Aw, come on, Coach.'"

The Knights were far from last November's 17-12 triumph against Westfield in the title game, but nowhere near as far as they were from the concept of returning to GISA football's grand stage, as they will tonight in hosting the championship game against George Walton.

That was obvious when the Knights opened the season at home against GW.

The Bulldogs bullied Deerfield into an ugly 16-6 defeat. These young Knights were so overwhelmed, Lowe couldn't even tell his players how to correct what they were doing wrong.

"You got guys not even knowing how to block a certain style because you didn't have any time to even cover it because you are worried about some of your basic things," Lowe said.

From that night forward, it became clear to Lowe the journey to defend the state title would be much different than the journey to acquiring it.

He flopped his offensive and defensive lines out. He switched out of a 4-4 defense he used his entire career to a split formation his assistants were familiar with. A 1-2 start to the season served as growing pains with a young group. It wasn't even until the Week 11 game against Brookwood that he felt comfortable sending in audibles or running a no-huddle offense.

But gradually the wins began to roll in.

There are 10 of them in a row now.

"Once we became a team and everything started rolling," said Zenon, who went over 2,000 rushing yards for the season last Friday, "it was kind of hard to stop it."

Nobody has stayed within single digits of the Knights since a Sept. 4 loss to FPD. Last year, a 6-3 win against Westfield was the only game closer than single digits during DWS' 10-game win streak entering the state title game.

Yet, as the Knights return, 365 days later, to the scene of last year's triumph, players and coaches alike with the Knights have trouble comparing any element of this year's game to the win against Westfield.

"We don't even talk about last year with this bunch," Lowe said. "It is a different group, a different team, we win differently. Especially on the defensive side of the ball. I think if you ask a lot of people that were part of it last year, they are looking at us saying, 'Wow, how'd they do that?'"

They have done it by overcoming the common pitfalls of a defending champion. Motivation can lag when a teenager already owns a championship ring, and keeping the Knights focused was near the top of Lowe's list of concerns.

"You do worry about that because it is easy to expect it to happen instead of going out and also taking care of it," Lowe said. "You can't go through on cruise control, you have to take care of your own destiny."

The Knights took care of it by utilizing the drive of a team full of players that either watched from the sidelines or even the stands last year. In all, 32 of the team's players are either freshman or sophomores.

Only Zenon, Banks Kinslow and Justin Webb returned on defense, and the entire front seven is new. Much of that front seven also plays both ways.

"It's been a little different," senior Quinton Adkins said. "We had to fight. Our motto is we had to fight. I never thought the word fight would be more prevalent. We had to fight last year also, but this year it was everything. I am playing both sides of the ball, and there are a lot of people playing both ways."

While Lowe doesn't compare the 2009 version of his team to the 2008 model, he does admit there is some positive carryover.

"I think what we have going on right now is the kids, when they walk on the field, they expect to win," Lowe said. "A lot of times that is half the battle to succeed and play well. That is a legacy I hope last year's senior class left for this group and this group leaves for the next group."