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The first practice of the last week of the season is crammed with Wise-themed inspiration, shouted over the house music Kelley blares to prepare his team for elevated crowd noise.

Special teams coordinator Aaron Moxley: “There’s going to be a guy across from you. He’s going to be good. But he’s not Superman.”

Offensive line coach Chuck Oswald: “There isn’t a tomorrow after this one. Those guys aren’t expecting a lot from you. Show them.”

Kelley: “You are the better team, gentlemen. Start believing that.”

Wise has now won 41 straight games, back-to-back undefeated seasons with a state title at the end of each one. Senior defensive back A.J. Lytton is committed to Florida State. Junior wide receiver Isaiah Hazel has offers from Maryland and West Virginia, among other major programs. They have 300-pound players on the line, on both sides of the ball.

Quince Orchard’s roster is a bit more lean. Doc is going to Dartmouth. Tyler Terry verbally committed to Monmouth at the end of November. A handful of seniors are trying to play in Division II. But many are in their last week of football, after meeting each other at their first youth practices almost a decade ago, watching film during lunch periods, lifting all those weights. One more week. The juniors still have another year. The sophomores have two. And the freshmen, well, they have a lifetime.

“It doesn’t feel real that in just a few days it will all be over. Football will be over,” senior defensive tackle Bryan Ramos says at the end of Tuesday’s practice, staring at a field that went from green to pale yellow as the temperatures dropped. “It’s like we have two options now. Win, and you talk about it forever. Or lose, and you think about it forever.”

Doc has been waiting for this game since last December, ever since that third-quarter collision left him lying on the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium turf. Since the spring, his phone background has been a photo of the Wise player standing over him at the end of the play. On Thursday night, he hangs out on the staircase at home in front of a small sign that reads, “QO Cheer Loves Doc!” It was taped to the Bonners’ front door the day before the season, when the cheerleaders covered each senior’s front yard with shaving cream and toilet paper and Saran wrap. It has hung up inside ever since.

“If we win tomorrow, I’m going out after the game,” Doc says.

“What did you say?” Latoya, his mom, answers from the kitchen.

“I was asking for permission to go out if we win tomorrow,” Doc says with less confidence.

“I didn’t hear the asking for permission part!” Linard, his dad, cracks, and the whole family laughs.

Doc shakes his head, smiling, and walks to his room to repeat his night-before-the-game routine one final time. He fishes his white jersey off a hook above his bed and starts setting up his uniform on the folding chair by his closet, just beneath the white jersey that was cut off his body the last time the Cougars faced Wise.

The scissored-off jersey is a reminder of a loss, sure, but also of football’s dangers and how a dream, how everything, can be taken by this sport if two players collide the wrong way. Doc felt that. His parents did, too. But they accept the risks as part of the game, and Doc doesn’t believe in playing scared, even as words such as concussion and head injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, keeping showing up in the news. Football will be football, for one more high school game and four more seasons at Dartmouth, and Doc will have to protect himself.

The gold practice shirt, the one he’ll never wear again, is balled up on the floor at the foot of his bed. He stuffs browned white socks into his black cleats, drapes his shoulder pads over the back of the chair, balances his black helmet atop the shoulder pads and, once everything is in place, steps a yard back to get a good look.

“One more game in a Quince Orchard uniform,” he says. “That’s crazy.”

School employees clean up the Cougar Dome after Quince Orchard defeated Northwest. Aaron Green collects his thoughts before the state championship game. Quince Orchard players signed up to be taped for the North Point game.

Just after 2 p.m. Friday, two coach buses follow a police escort out of Quince Orchard and, before setting down the highway to Annapolis, take a quick detour.

“You may want to open up your shades, guys,” John Kelley suggests from the front of the bus. When they do, they see students from Rachel Carson Elementary lining a long stretch of sidewalk that winds through the school’s parking lot. There are hundreds of kids, maybe some future Cougars among them, holding signs, jumping up and down, screaming encouragement.

“This is so damn cool,” Kelley says as he gives a thumbs-up to his wife’s first-grade class. Aaron Green mouths “Wow” as he pushes his nose against the window. And in the middle of the crowd is a row of 17 kids, each holding one letter of an important message: BELIEVE IN YOURSELF.

“Most guys are going to play 12 minutes, and that’s 12 minutes for the rest of your life,” Kelley barks three hours later as the team gathers in the visitors’ locker room for a pregame walk-through. “That’s 12 minutes for the next 60 years of your life. You guys have been playing football since you were 7 years old. Your parents support you, your friends, everybody in the community, you owe it to them, for those five seconds, to go as hard as you physically and mentally can.”

It all happens so fast once the game kicks off. The Cougars get a big red-zone stop on Wise’s first possession, as Aaron Green makes a diving tackle to prevent a touchdown. He injures his left arm while hitting the turf, has it wrapped in a soft cast and plays the rest of the game. Doc breaks off a 50-yard run. Quince Orchard pushes ahead on a short rushing touchdown by Marquez Cooper. Wise ties it, then scores again to take a 13-7 lead.

The Cougars score on the first possession of the second half, with Doc finding Brendan McGonagle on a crossing route, to go up 14-13. Linard Bonner, eyes wide, smile wider, embraces the students sitting next to him in the first row. Kelley and offensive coordinator TJ Changuris bump shoulders before listing instructions into their headsets, raising their voices to compete with heightening crowd noise.

The Cougars carry a 14-13 lead into the fourth quarter, and their fans go crazy. They believe. They are all 12 minutes away from Quince Orchard’s first state title in a decade. Twelve minutes for the rest of their lives.

But then the Cougars punt. Wise takes a five-point lead. The Pumas score again and again and again and Kelley gnaws on two pieces of pink Extra gum and Doc, his breath visible in the cold night air, looks at the clock on the big screen and . . . tick . . . tick . . . tick . . .

It’s over.

“Most guys are going to play 12 minutes,” Kelley says,

“and that’s 12 minutes for the rest of your life.

“That’s 12 minutes for the next 60 years of your life.”

The Cougars lose, 38-20, in the final hours of the first day of December. As the Pumas celebrate their 42nd straight win, with their crowd chanting, “Three-peat! Three-peat! Three-peat!,” the Quince Orchard sideline is quiet aside from scattered sniffling. The Wise band blasts music while the Quince Orchard band packs up. Wise’s fans dance as members of the Red Army, their face paint already chipping away, fix blank stares on the field. Offensive tackle Mike Fierstein, eye black smeared by sweat and tears, can’t take his eyes off the frozen scoreboard. Green, left arm hanging at his side, walks to the stands, and his dad, Zane, leans over to kiss his son’s forehead. An X-ray later showed that his arm was broken from the first quarter on. Doc goes up to each senior teammate, shakes his hand and says, “Hey, this was fun.”

“Be proud of everything,” Kelley says, his team huddled around him one last time, as he holds the runner-up plaque. His voice is raspy and cracking, and for a moment it is drowned out by cheers from across the field. “One thing you’re always going to be is a Quince Orchard Cougar. Always.”

Just after midnight, as the bus waits to make the last left onto Quince Orchard Road, as players stir awake and crinkle snack wrappers into their pockets, the driver turns to Kelley.

“What game was it tonight?” he asks.

“It was the state championship,” Kelley responds.

“So the loser goes home?” the driver asks as the light turns green and the bus rolls into the intersection.

“Well, the winner goes home, too,” Kelley says through a faint smile. “No matter what, you go home.”

They park in front of the school, and the players file off without talking much. They trickle into the parking lot, one after another, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, carrying equipment and the uncertainty of whatever comes after football ends. They scrape December frost off their windshields. They flick on their white headlights. The Cougar Dome is dark and empty, those lights off until next fall, and the countdown clock outside the locker room is shut down for the winter.

But in just a few months it will start ticking again. Next season isn’t too far away.

Doc Bonner searches a nightstand for his socks on the eve of the state championship. He has committed to play football for Dartmouth in college.

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Source : https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/sports/high-school-football-in-america/

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