ELKTON — The sting from last November’s 38-0 playoff loss to Oakdale in the 2A State semifinals still lingers for Elkton senior quarterback Nolan Null nearly nine months later.
“That was a tough game. They were a great team,” Null said during a physical August preseason practice. “We bounced back from it. We came into the weight room in the offseason and everyone was working, everybody’s already working out here and everybody’s motivated to go get that ring.”
Having only lost five players from last year’s roster to graduation, the pieces are certainly in place for another deep postseason run. While there’s a feeling of heightened expectations surrounding the Golden Elks (10-3), the team is doing its best to remain level entering the campaign.
“There’s some confidence,” Elkton head coach Matt Feeney said. “We lost some real key guys, all of them, if they’re not playing college, could have played in college, so that’s tough to replace. However, we feel like we had some guys in the wings who have just kind of been seasoning and now they’re getting their shot.
“I don’t want to throw around ‘special,’ but I’d say right now, what’s special about this group is the attitude and the camaraderie. They’re enjoying their time out here together. We’re not heaping expectations on them. We’re not looking at Oakdale or anything down the road. We’re looking at Bo Manor Week 1 and going 1-0. Everyone’s locked in on that right now.”
Once again, simply keeping up with Elkton’s offense will be the main agenda for opposing teams.
In his first season on varsity, Null rolled to All-County Player of the Year behind 2,725 passing yards, while Dah’mear Triplett, Michael Vass and Trevin Ewing combined to catch 28 touchdowns as part of the most prolific passing campaign in Cecil County history.
While Triplett moved on to play football for Lincoln University after garnering 803 receiving yards, 14 touchdowns and a spot in the Maryland Crab Bowl, Null returns, along with Vass (39 catches, 744 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Ewing (21 catches, 466 yards, three touchdowns).
The Elks’ entire stable of running backs, led by senior Tashawn Watters (1,067 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns) is also back, along with four-fifths of the offensive line.
“I’m really excited. We’re going to score a lot of points, gain a lot of yards. The offensive line is great and they’re going to block their butts off, the skill players are going to make plays. We’ve got a lot of players who can do a lot of things,” Null said.
Feeney was not surprised by the strong season Null experienced as a junior.
“There was a push to bring Null up his sophomore year, but I ultimately said no. We left him down to be a good quarterback at the JV level. I think that gave him a lot of confidence stepping in last year and to be able to come in and do what he did,” Feeney said. “This year, he’s bigger, faster. Watching him pull the ball down and take off with it, that’s an athlete. He just makes us that much more dynamic.
“You don’t go the distance unless you have [a quarterback],” Feeney added. “It’s the hardest position in football without a doubt. You’ve got to have a dude there and Null’s that guy. Nolan can throw it with the best of them. He can sling it.”
Defensively, the secondary must overcome the departure of All-County Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Hawkins, while the line must replace All-County pass rusher RJ Smith.
In between, the Elks are relatively unchanged, and even welcome senior safety Elijah Perry, who transferred from North East after earning All-County honors last fall.
“It’s a great feeling. Now, you don’t have to worry about teaching guys new things. Everybody knows their jobs, so it’s easy on everybody. We can just do our job and that’s the reason why we feel confident,” said Watters, also a safety, who earned 2017 All-County Defensive Player of the Year honors. “We’re coming into this season very technically sound and very strong on both sides of the ball. Now we’re working on special teams. I think we’re going to be good to start off the year.”
The team’s trio of linebackers — Kahree Stephens, Frank Turner and Gregg Triplett III — are all back as juniors and looking to capitalize after a dominating end to last season. The group was largely responsible for humbling then-undefeated North Caroline’s Wing-T offense during last year’s 2A East Region Championship.
“We’re more experienced and getting better every day. We just come into work and want to go far. We know what the goal is ahead of us and want to accomplish it,” Stephens said. “Everybody’s used to their assignments, everyone’s filling, especially the linebackers.”
The team also welcomes back senior All-County kicker/punter Jake Bosler, a soccer-turned-football star who has garnered a four-star rating, according to Kohl Kicking Camps.
“That loss to Oakdale has really fueled us. I think last year, we got a little complacent with ourselves because we beat a lot of teams that every year people say we’re not going to beat. We just got air-headed and we got smacked in the mouth,” Watters said. “So now,= we’re fueled and hopefully it carries throughout the entire season.”
Follow Jordan Schatz on Twitter: @Jordan_Whig