St. Stephens and St. Agnes junior Khaamal Whitaker had two words for his teammates after a 34-13 loss to St. Christophers in their September 10 home opener: Practice. Harder.
The young squad showed their inexperience early on and spent much of the first half of their Saturday game trying to settle down on offense and defense: snaps went high, resulting in one turnover on St. Stephens 24-yard-line just minutes into the game. Sloppy penalties added up and poor punting gave Richmonds Saints a short field drive after drive.
Alexandrias Saints headed into the locker room down 19-6, their sole trip to the end zone coming off of a fumble returned for the touchdown.
And while the defense eventually stiffened, slowing St. Christophers once-seemingly unstoppable offense, St. Stephens could not keep up with their mid-state rivals.
St. Christophers broke through the St. Stephens defense with a 27-yard rushing touchdown midway in the third quarter. They would earn a safety before breaking out again early in the fourth quarter to put them comfortably over St. Stephens.
A visibly flagging St. Stephens squad put together a last-minute scoring drive, but it was too little, too late.
Despite the mistakes, bad penalties and turnovers, newly anointed Saints head coach Bernard Joseph was pleased with his teams spirit. Even after St. Christophers took an early lead, they didnt roll over, he said.
I think our guys fought, Joseph said. We can fix problems as long as theyre ready to fight.
Count Whitaker among the fighters. Scrambling to recover the football on a punt return deep in the Saints territory, he watched as the ball took an awkward bounce at his feet and ricocheted off his helmet.
Before he could turn around, a St. Christophers player had nabbed the errant football, eyes on the not-to-distant end zone. Whitaker pivoted, snatched the ball and turned up field to give the Saints offense breathing room.
It was instinct, he said afterward. I knew I touched it, so I had to get it back. It was just instinct from growing up playing backyard football.
But Whitaker wasnt happy with the teams performance. One or two good plays aside, they were out of sync. Some of the younger guys had jitters, he said.
Junior quarterback Myles Nelson agreed. If they want to win, they have to get on the same page. The first-time starter included himself among the players with room for improvement.
You cant have any turnovers, Nelson said. I just need to improve my reads and throws. Im trying to get better overall.
If there was a silver lining, it was the teams dogged attempts to catch up with St. Christophers, even as the game clock slowly ground down, Whitaker said. Like his coach, the junior wide receiver preached the need to keep fighting.
It hurts to lose, but it hurts more to lose by quitting, he said.
That shouldnt be a problem when the Saints head down the road to take on Bishop Ireton September 17. The backyard rivalry between the two teams has made for better play in years past.
Despite their youth and relative inexperience, Whitaker sees bright things on the Saints horizon. Theyll up the intensity during practice and come back out ready to battle again.
Its not the size of the dog in the fight, he said. Its the size of the fight in the dog.