After a breakout season in 2017, the Westminster High School football team is ready to go even further this year.
The Owls reached the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association state playoffs last year for the first time since 2013. Westminster's 9-1 regular season record was enough to earn the group the No. 1 overall seed in the highly competitive 3A West region.
After dispatching Watkins Mill, 58-18, in the regional semifinals, the Owls faced Linganore, the only team to beat them in the regular season, in the regional final. It ended up being a defense-first instant classic, as both offenses struggled to get into a rhythm. Linganore eventually pulled out a 16-14 win to advance to the state semifinals, while the Owls finished their season with a 10-2 record.
Two weeks after defeating Westminster, Linganore beat Milford Mill 28-27 to capture the MPSSAA 3A state championship. Linganore's triumph confirmed what many at Westminster had believed all season -- that the Owls were capable of winning a state championship.
"There's definitely a feeling that we only lost to them by two, we were right there with Linganore," senior quarterback Christian Etchison said. "There was not much separation between the two teams, and I know we felt whoever would win that game would have a great chance of winning the whole thing. We were right, and it could have been us."
It's a thought that's stuck with both Westminster's players and coaches throughout this offseason. Westminster head coach Matt Study is hoping last year's season-ending loss isn't the only inspiration his group relies on entering 2018.
"Our motto for this year is whether it's a team like Linganore, or a team that hasn't won a game all year, is that we are competing against a faceless opponent," Study said. "No matter where we go, we'll need to focus on bringing our best attitude and effort. That, along with team chemistry, will be the deciding factor in if we'll be able to erase that bad memory this December."
Though Westminster graduated talent from last year's group, there's still reason to believe the team will be strong again this season.
The return of Etchison, now a senior, is a big source of optimism. Etchison, who transferred to Westminster from McDonogh a few days before Westminster's training camp began last year, was one of the Baltimore area's top quarterbacks in 2017. Etchison threw for 2,195 yards and 31 touchdowns despite early exits during a handful contests in which Westminster accumulated big leads. Etchison also rushed for 336 yards and four touchdowns. He took care of the ball, as well, throwing just six interceptions.
A big challenge facing Etchison and the Westminster passing attack, though, is a complete overhaul at the wide receiver position. Westminster lost all of its key receivers from last season to graduation, which leaves Etchison working with a new batch of pass-catchers.
Westminster is addressing its receiving corps in part by dipping into its defense. Though most of Westminster's players only played offense or defense last year, that won't be the case this season, as Study wants his top playmakers to get the ball as much as possible.
One of those playmakers is senior Tavian Montgomery, who played some offense last year but mostly enjoyed a standout season at defensive back. It's been a smooth transition thus far for Montgomery, due in part because he's used to working with Etchison.
"When Christian first transferred to Westminster, we did work together. We always find time to throw the ball together, which is really helps us now," Montgomery said. "Another big part of it is watching film together. We pride ourselves on doing that -- watching together, and then discussing it. It helps during games. You can look at each other and have a better idea of what the other guy is thinking."
It's a routine to which Etchison is committed. Etchison, who doubles as a lacrosse player, helped Westminster win the MPSSAA 3A boys lacrosse state championship this past spring with a three-goal performance in the title game. Etchison reached out to his wide receivers the day after the championship game to see if they wanted to practice together. A couple hours later, they were on Westminster's field going over routes together.
It's that sort of commitment that has Study feeling optimistic about the upcoming season. The Owls have plenty of talent on their roster, but that drive to keep getting better is what could take them to even greater heights than they reached in 2017.
"The sky is the limit for the team this year," Study said. "We've lost some big-name guys, but I think we have some really talented players coming in and returning. The group is definitely putting in the work and the mindset is there, which makes me excited about the potential for this team."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Matt Study