Elijah Rucker, accompanied by fellow senior standouts Fonnae Webb and Jordyn Reid, sat in the Mount Vernon football coaches office following a recent practice and said it’s going to be different this year.
Rucker, a two-way lineman and four-year starter for the Majors, was a freshman during head coach Monty Fritts’ first season at Mount Vernon, when the team reached the 2016 postseason with a .500 record and got throttled by state power Centreville.
In 2017, Mount Vernon turned in the program’s first winning season since 2008, but the Majors were shut out in the opening round of the playoffs by a Woodbridge team that would reach the state final four.
“For the past three years, we’ve been going to the playoffs,” said Rucker, a unanimous 2019 first-team all-district selection on both sides of the ball. “[At practice, we would think], ‘this could be our last week of practice.’ This year, we’re dominant. We expect to go [on a postseason run].”
Tonight, No. 2-seed Mount Vernon will compete in the playoffs for a fourth straight season when the Majors (9-1) host No. 7 Justice (6-4) at 7 p.m. in the opening round of the Region C bracket.
Mount Vernon has re-written the school record book under Fritts, the 2019 Gunston District Coach of the Year. The Majors are 29-14 under the Knoxville native, who took over a program that posted a 19-53 record in the seven seasons prior. This year, Mount Vernon captured its first district championship since 1998 and will host a playoff game for the first time since 2008 – the last time the Majors earned a postseason victory.
Mount Vernon enters tonight’s contest on a nine-game win streak – including victories over playoff teams Yorktown, Centreville and T.C. Williams – and only undefeated South County is seeded higher in the region.
No longer are the Majors an underdog road team facing an uphill battle in the postseason.
“It wouldn’t matter who we are playing,” Fritts said, “our kids are extremely confident in what we have.”
Mount Vernon faces a Justice team (formerly J.E.B. Stuart) it used to compete against as members of the National District. Annandale was the Majors’ and Wolves’ only common opponent during the regular season. Mount Vernon blanked the Atoms, 42-0, while Justice pulled out a 26-20 win.
Justice suffered double-digit defeats against Gar-Field (41-14), Washington-Liberty (40-14), West Springfield (56-14) and Wakefield (32-21), but closed the regular season winning four of its last five, including victories over playoff teams Marshall and Falls Church.
Mount Vernon’s lone defeat came against playoff qualifier C.D. Hylton, 35-28, in the season opener.
Fritts said Justice’s top offensive weapons are quarterback Marco Cesaratto and running back Devin Matthews.
While the potential exists for Mount Vernon to look ahead to a possible second-round matchup with Lake Braddock, Fritts said last year’s narrow victory over Justice (31-28) should help keep the Majors focused on the task at hand.
“You would hope [the Majors would not look ahead], but I do think that (potential) is there,” Fritts said. “They can look at the bracket and see what is coming down the pike and they are excited. The great thing for us is we played [Justice] last year and it was a tough game. … I think the kids understand that if we don’t play well and we turn the ball over, they have a chance to beat us.”
Reid, a first-team all-district selection as a running back and punt returner, said the Majors won’t get ahead of themselves.
“We’ve been told that we’re going to play Lake Braddock in the second round,” Reid said, “but we’re not paying any attention to them. We’re going to take it one team at a time, one play at a time. Whatever is next, is next. We’re going to focus on what is right now and in front of us. We’re going to do what we’ve got to do on Friday.”
When asked what the Majors are capable of, Webb, a first-team all-district selection at quarterback who is slated to continue his football career at the University of Richmond, said the team has had high hopes since the offseason.
“We’ve been saying we can win states since March,” Webb said. “… We have one of the best defenses in the state and our offense is just as good.”
The winner of Mount Vernon and Justice will take on the winner of No. 3 Lake Braddock and No. 6 Robinson in the Region C semifinals. Other first-round matchups include No. 1 South County against No. 8 Falls Church, and No. 4 West Springfield against No. 5 T.C. Williams.
With a fourth-straight playoff appearance approaching and three of Mount Vernon’s best players sitting in the coach’s office, Rucker was asked if he had taken the time to reflect on what he and the Majors had accomplished in the last four seasons.
“I mean, yeah,” he said, “but at the same time I know we have way more to do. We basically have been doing the same thing the past two years. This year, it’s going to be different.”