WASHINGTON — Tom Verbanic isn’t used to starting freshmen.
The Flint Hill head coach can hardly ever remember starting any first-year players during his time at Westfield, where he won a pair of Virginia AAA Division 6 state titles. In fact, he could only point to one: Penn State star and NFL running back Evan Royster. But right now, the Huskies (5-2) are starting three freshmen, one of which is evoking Royster in his stunningly quick adjustment to high school ball.
That player is Jordan Houston, who is making an immediate impact alongside defensive back Zach Garcia and wide receiver/defensive back Trey Rucker. But at just 5-foot-8, 155 pounds, Houston has shouldered the offensive load, getting at least 20 carries in every game, while racking up an average of nearly 200 yards per game to go along with 12 touchdowns on the ground.
But it’s not just the breakaway speed that can get you. He’s got terrific cutback ability, and can fight through a tackle to turn a small gain into a solid one, or a decent run into a breakaway score.
“It’s a little different here,” says Verbanic about the need to start younger players, due to the smaller school size. “But it’s still pretty rare. It’s always interesting when you have kids who haven’t been in the program at all.”
Verbanic credits his student-athletes with putting in hard work over the summer with three-times-a-week weight training along with three-times-a-week speed training to get up to speed. And he credits his coaches with getting young players up to speed and ready to not just compete, but be successful.
“I knew when this kid came out to summer workouts that he was going to be special,” says senior quarterback Justin Saleh, who shares a backfield with Houston. “Everything he did was impressive until it became expected of him, but then the next week he would just raise the bar with his performance in practice or in a game.”
The Huskies will need Houston to keep doing what he’s done to beat the Maret Frogs (7-1) when the two clash Saturday afternoon at Wilson High School in our DMV Game of the Week.
Maret head coach Mike Engleberg has a roster of only 22 players, but one loaded with those who have the chance to play on Saturday. Perhaps their biggest challenge is that they all have to play both offense and defense, fighting off fatigue as well as their opponents.
“We’re always the smallest number in terms of the size of our squad,” says Engleberg. “When we score a touchdown, we just stay on the field and play defense. But we don’t ever use that as an excuse.”
Maret will dress only six linemen, though, leaving their margin for error, rest or injury quite thin. But that’s life in small school football. Everyone’s role is amplified, as is every game, with only five teams competing in the division.
“Every game becomes like a playoff game,” says Engleberg.
It also shines a light on the fact that this game won the WTOP DMV Game of the Week over a pair of much larger schools. With over 6,600 total votes cast, the matchup edged the showdown of Montgomery County unbeatens Damascus and Seneca Valley by fewer than 40 votes. For seniors like Saleh, that doesn’t necessarily add any additional weight to an already big game, but helps provide a little extra motivation.
“It means a lot for the community to come together and vote us Game of the Week,” he says. “Our preparation hasn’t changed at all this week, but you can tell that all the football players are proud of our community for caring enough about them, and that we want to come out to play this weekend to show them our appreciation.”