HAMPTON ——For a team riding a 45-game winning streak that includes three consecutive state championships, not all has been an ice cream social for Phoebus football. The offseason has been one hit after another, either from a personnel standpoint or a PR nightmare.
There's one thing the Phantoms know to do about it — keep winning. That's what everyone not dressed in blue and gold is hoping they won't do. And given the bad news of late, many of them are predicting an immediate drop-off.
"I definitely feel that," quarterback/kicker Eric Enderson said. "When somebody's talking about Phoebus football and it's not someone from Phoebus, it's somebody talking bad about it. They're like, 'Oh, they'll come down this year.'
"It's hard, but it's fun at the same time. It makes us work harder. We expect to work harder than everyone else because we want it more."
Let's face it, there are a bunch of question marks. Enderson is in line to be the team's fourth different starting quarterback in four years. It's up in the air who will be the fourth different starting tailback in four years now that Atavius Matthews, the heir apparent, tore his ACL.
But here's what most concerns Phantoms coach Stan Sexton: The defensive line lost three of its four starters — all-state end Daquan Romero and pleasant surprises Justin Williamson and Tevin Mcgougan.
In all, 11 starters from last year will be playing college football, at one level or another, this fall.
"We had a lot of good players last year," linebacker Justin "Boom Box" Lyles said. "Some of them didn't get the starting role, but they played a lot. This isn't anything new to them. They have the heart of a Phantom."
There's also been some turnover in the coaching staff. Less than a week before preseason practice began, Greg Narvid, Phoebus' defensive coordinator since 1990, resigned over what he called "a philosophical disagreement." He was only, arguably, the best defensive mind in the state.
Greg Day, another longtime assistant, already had left for family reasons — he has a young son and twins on the way. Suddenly, a veteran staff wasn't so veteran.
But Ron Johnson, who coached at Phoebus from 1998-2009 before leaving for Heritage, has returned. Ditto Jerry King, who coached on Bill Dee's staff back in the day.
"We've had coaches leave us lately," Enderson said. "But we have a group of coaches who bleed blue and gold and are ready to step in and help us."
There's also been some bad press.
Following the Phantoms' 36-17 win over Stone Bridge in the Division 5 final, it was discovered that a small group of players had stolen personal belongings from another team. That led to the VHSL issuing a three-year warning period, during which time the program risks a postseason ban for another infraction.
In June, Dennis Rowsey, a volunteer assistant with Phoebus last season, was arrested on federal drug trafficking charges. Though he was no longer on the Phantoms' staff at the time of his arrest, his name was linked to the program in the press.
"We've had a lot of controversy," Sexton said. "I felt the kids have done a great job of overcoming it. It just seems like we get over one thing and something else comes up. But each time, the kids have bonded together stronger. These kids are willing to go out and give it up for each other.
"They're like brothers. They stick together and they push each other. We feel like we'll come out stronger for it and we'll come out a better football team. We'll come out more unified. And to me, we'll come back with a bigger chip on our shoulders."
But Sexton also wants his players to understand their place as role models to kids. On Aug. 13 (10 a.m. until noon), Phoebus is inviting local youth leagues and fans to a "Community Day." A scrimmage will be held, and afterward the players will be available for conversations and autographs.
So does Phoebus remain the team to beat? Well, it's hard to go against a team that hasn't lost in 1,345 days. And the more everyone wants them to fail, the more the Phantoms seem to refuse.
"The bigger the bull's eye, the harder they work," Sexton said. "You love us or you hate us. And the kids carry that with them.
"I always tell the seniors, it will end someday. But is it going to end on your watch?"