Sports

Mason Turns to Unity, Toughness to Overcome Disappointing ‘08 Season

It’s something no team wants to experience: a nearly winless season. And on the heels of one of the worst years in recent memory, no one has to tell members of the George Mason High School football team that it’s time for a change. IMG_3056

It’s something no team wants to experience: a nearly winless season. And on the heels of one of the worst years in recent memory, no one has to tell members of the George Mason High School football team that it’s time for a change.

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MASON H.S. MUSTANGS get back to the grind for the 2009-10 football season. (Photo: News-Press)

One year after posting a 1-9 mark, the Mustangs are out to prove that the .100 winning percentage is more of an outlier than indicative of a unit vastly transformed from the one that ran the table in the Bull Run District in 2006 and made the Region B playoffs.

But with a running game almost totally different from years prior, the road ahead will not be easy, even for the players who were around for the 5-0 district season. With the graduation of John and Charlie Mann, Mason loses 87 percent of its total offense. That will have to be made up this year with a trio of senior backs: Yates Jordan, Chris Saraus, and Ben Taylor.

Taylor, who had fewer than 200 yards of total offense last year, is an elusive back with explosive speed. Saraus, on the other hand, is more of a bruiser despite his small size, preferring to run right over people in the open field. The pair and Jordan, who nursed an injury for the majority of last season, will have to shoulder the offensive load.

“Each of these guys take a day when they are going to look like a great running back, going back and forth and competing for time,” Mason coach Tom Horn said.  “The three know that only two are going to be on the field at any given time, which gives it legitimate competition at the position.”

Perhaps the hardest spot to determine a starter is quarterback, where for the first time in his 13 years at Mason Horn says the position is legitimately three deep. Senior George Kalantzis, who finished last year behind center, junior Tyler Duncan, last year’s junior varsity quarterback and junior Mitch Hirsch, who was out with a foot injury last year, are all in the running.

“The QB position is up in the air right now, but overall we have three quarterbacks who are very capable of doing the job,” senior P.J. Anderson said.

For now, though, there is no clear-cut favorite.

“We haven’t allowed them to separate themselves,” Horn said. “We’ve set them up in equal situation and split the time on Friday in our first scrimmage. I don’t know if there’s enough to keep them from rotating time.”

On the defensive end, a trio of experienced inside linebackers will head a traditionally strong unit. Though this year’s squad is small than it’s ever been, Horn notes that the Mustangs have more experience at crucial spots.

“Some kid want to play football and some want to be football players, and we’re looking at kids who are football players,” he said. “We’ve never really had three linebackers who all have a full year of starting. It makes your whole defense look faster and look more aggressive.”

Seniors Misael Benitez, Matt Palmeiri and Manuel Veiga-Diaz all have at least 10 starts under their belts and have displayed a “real kind of enthusiasm about playing” thus far.

“We have to make up for bodies that don’t exist on the field because we have a small number of people playing,” said Veiga-Diaz, who noted that Mason’s investment in a five-man blocking sled has made a noticeable difference on the line. “We’re going to have to step up our game.”

Sophomore Stephen Lubnow figures to be an anchor in the secondary at safety and is a potential x-factor.  Once he came back from an injury last year, Horn saw enough potential to redesign the defense to exploit Lubnow’s talents.

“It’s a big gamble to put in a sophomore, but we feel like he has some special skills, he is a nose-to-the-ball kid,” Horn said. We think we made the right choice but he has to do that over the course of the season, make our decision stand up. We haven’t had a safety with that real desire since [2006 graduate] Travis Greene where you have to make him back away at times.”

But regardless of what talent Mason may have, the key to avoiding a repeat of the 1-9 year will be coming together as a team.

“Our team is a lot more united,” Veiga-Diaz said. The team factor has become a big thing instead of just people trying to achieve personal goals.  When you’re with the team the whole year, unity starts to build, and you get respect for teammates working as hard as you are. People are coming into the season feeling a little bit more prepared. We’re a lot closer, not just on the field.”

“We have to play hard, play for the guy next to us more than we play for ourselves,” Anderson added. “We’re really emphasizing our only rule, which is don’t let your teammates down.”

The bonus this year is that the Mustangs are the perfect amalgamation of hard work and desire.

“When the kids who could sit out drills and still be the best are the hardest workers, the drill leaders, you know you have a team that can achieve beyond its talent,” Horn said. “That’s a new thing in the last 13 months. It’s a different work ethic this August than last by everyone involved.”

When asked where this change came from, the answer was simple.

“Sometimes when you hit the bottom of the valley you can choose to stay there or you can choose to climb. Kids don’t like the feeling of underachieving.”

After Tuesday’s practice, Horn took the team to the movies to see Tony Dungy’s Red Zone 2009, a film featuring the Super Bowl winning coach. The flick emphasized performance, conditioning, teamwork and character above all else, preaching football as a fraternity comprised of high school players.

But despite whatever bond the Mustangs may feel with the opposition, camaraderie within Mason’s unit remains priority number one.

“I don’t know if we’ll win any more games [than we did last year], but we’re better,” Horn said. “I’m not sure if there was a shared belief last year. If eel like these guys understand each other and believe that they each have the same commitment. Spending a lot of time together brings kids closer to sharing that one common goal.”

In the face of adversity, Mason has nowhere to go but up.

“I see a big improvement over last year,” Anderson said. “We were in every single district game but one last year and should be right there again this year. While we might not be superior talent-wise to last year, we are better as a team.”

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