Opponents who underestimate the McLean High football team this season might be in for a not so pleasant surprise. The Highlanders went 0-10 last year under then-first year head coach Jim Patrick. But this year’s team is physically stronger following an offseason of extensive weight room work. It is also more versed in coach Patrick’s style and schemes and hungry to win some games following the winless 2008 campaign.
McLean opened the new season two weeks ago with a lopsided, breakthrough 44-14 win over Washington-Lee. This past Friday night, the Highlanders had their eyes set on sneaking up on a Herndon High team that qualified for the postseason last year and has an outstanding group of skill position talent this season.
But while the Highlanders gave Herndon a scare, it was the Hornets, behind a big game from quarterback Zach Ozycz, who came out with a hard-fought, 28-21, come-from-behind victory at home.
“Their offensive line did a better job than I was expecting,” said Herndon coach Joe Sheaffer, of a McLean line that was the backbone for an offense that netted close to 350 yards.
Herndon also got a first-hand look at one of the Northern Region’s top players in running back Riley Beiro, who scored all three of his team’s touchdowns and finished the night with 176 yards rushing on 41 carries.
“We knew about him,” said Sheaffer, of the Highlanders’ outstanding senior who had a sensational first half to the ’08 season before injuries forced him to miss the second half. “It’s hard to duplicate [a runner like that] in practice. But it wasn’t a surprise to us. Number one, the kids a good football player and a hard runner. He’s fast enough and plays hard. The kid never wore down.”
Beiro scored on runs of three and 14 yards in the opening quarter. Later in the game, his 35-yard touchdown run, followed by a Drew Hunt point-after kick, allowed the guests to tie the game at 21 with eight minutes remaining in the final quarter.
But in the end the game’s biggest hero was probably Ozycz, the Hornets’ third-year starting QB who tossed two third quarter touchdowns and ran for what proved to be the game-winning score in the fourth quarter.
Herndon, which had trailed 14-7 at halftime before surging ahead, 21-14, with two third quarter touchdowns, found itself on the cusp of being upset following Beiro’s long fourth quarter scoring run, in which he broke off the left side into open field before blowing through some arm tackles at around the 15 and going on into the end zone.
But Herndon, on its next possession, came right back with the go-ahead touchdown, marching 54 yards over eight plays. On the final play of the drive, Ozycz, on a first-and-goal from the McLean 10, dropped back to pass. But he was flushed out of the pocket by a heavy pass rush. He barely eluded one defenseman then bolted right and towards the end zone. The senior dove towards the end zone hash mark and barely got in for the score with five minutes, 59 seconds remaining. Following Alex Stopa’s fourth extra point kick of the night, the Hornets led 28-21.
“Honestly, I did not think I got over,” said Ozycz, of the touchdown play. “I just gave it 110 percent on the play. I was coming around the corner and saw my tightend, but he wasn’t open. But he threw a nice block and I scored.”
Sheaffer said the touchdown run was a typical play by his signal caller, who escaped a possible sack and found a way to get into the end zone.
“That’s just Zack,” said Sheaffer. “He’s a lot like the Beiro kid. He’s just a football player. He’s so valuable to us at quarterback.”
McLean, following the Herndon score, moved the ball from its 34-yard line to the Herndon 36 in seven plays. But on a fourth-and-two play, quarterback Will Hecht’s long pass down the right side was just off the fingertips of receiver John Fremermen. After that, Herndon effectively ran out the final three-plus minutes of the clock.
EARLIER IN THE SECOND HALF it was Ozycz’s throwing arm that accounted for a couple of touchdowns. On the first one, his high, deep throw down the right side of the field found the waiting arms of senior wide receiver Nick Impellizzeri, who caught the ball at around the five before going on into the end zone to get his team within 14-13 with 3:30 left in the third quarter.
A short while later, on Herndon’s next possession, Ozycz (13-of-19, 160 yards, 2 TDs), on a first down play from the McLean 33, dropped back and tossed a long pass down the left side of the field. Herndon senior Devon Thompson, with a defender right on him, caught the ball at the one yard line before stepping into the end zone for the score that came with 32 seconds left in the third quarter.
“Our wide receivers Devon and Nick made nice moves,” said Ozycz, of the two touchdown plays. “Our line did a tremendous job of protecting me on those plays.”
While the McLean defense was prone to giving up the big play during the game, the Highlanders, overall defensively, are much more aggressive and hard-hitting than the unit of a year ago. Highlander defensive coordinator Greg Sullivan is slowly making his mark on the McLean `D.’
Sullivan, a longtime football coach in the Northern Region and the former head coach at T.C. Williams, said his players are in better shape this season and do a better job stopping opposing offenses who try to use their speed to get around the corners in the running game.
“Our kids always listen and they play hard,” said Sullivan, of McLean as a whole, following the game. “We have a good chance at .500 [this season]. We’ve come a long way.”
The Highlanders will host 0-2 Wakefield this Thursday night.
Meanwhile, Herndon (2-0) will play at cross-town rival South Lakes on Thursday. The Seahawks are 2-0 with wins over Falls Church and Jefferson.
“We can’t take South Lakes lightly,” said Ozycz. “Every year it’s a battle. We have to get better and want to get better.”