New looks good at Paint Branch

Had a passerby wandered through Banneker Middle School two summers ago, they would have noticed dozens of young men, clad in Paint Branch High School gear and cutoffs, lifting weights outside in the schoolyard.

“Jailhouse weightlifting,” as coach Mike Nesmith called it. Due to ongoing renovations, the Panthers had no weight room. Their hands clapsed hot bars in the 90-plus degree heat. Dehydration was a perpetual concern. The only weights the players could lift were the ones they loaded into crates and unloaded into the yard. Besides that hardship, they hadn't had a home game since 2009, temporarily playing their “home” games at Montgomery Blair.

“A lot of people don't realize how much that puts on the kids,” Nesmith said. “To be getting on a bus every weekend, they don't really have home games.”

Fitting to Paint Branch's unlucky narrative, its first home game in half a decade was rained out and moved  to a Monday. Even with the less-than-traditional Monday night lights replacing the Friday night lights, fans still came out in droves for the home opener, the first since 2009.

“It was really, really great,” quarterback Gaston Cooper said. “I wouldn't really know, but to me, it felt like a college game. There was just a lot of hype around it. People were in the parking lots before. The stands were packed. It was awesome, and it helped a lot, just knowing that all our classmates and parents and alumni were behind us. It just gave us a boost.”

Whether the Panthers needed the boost or not there's no saying, but Paint Branch emerged with a 42-0 victory against James H. Blake. Cooper, meanwhile, ran for three touchdowns and threw another, accounting for 208 total yards in the first of four straight running clock wins.

“We are playing with tempo,” Nesmith said of his team, which averaged 52.75 plays per game through its first four games. “We are trying to get the ball off as quickly as possible. We're trying to take advantage of our conditioning. The more snaps you can get off, the more chances you have to score.”

It's ironic that Nesmith credited his team's conditioning as one of the reasons behind the success of this year's team since this is the first season in some time that the Panthers have the resources to get in shape. The impetus to this well-conditioned team, aside from the fact that the players have a place to lift weights with a roof over their heads, has been the hiring of renowned trainer Myron Flowers, a Paint Branch graduate who claims to have trained more than 20 NFL players, including San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis.

“It makes all the difference in the world. It really does,” Nesmith said. “One of the things that always makes the difference is strength and conditioning, putting in the hours [coaches] aren't paid to do. You end up paying to coach.

“It's not like Quince Orchard and Seneca and Damascus have all these Spartans walking around their hallways. That's not it. These are four-year guys in the program, four years of strength and conditioning. It's a big difference.”

Cooper, when speaking about having a weight room and home games, accidentally called it an advantage before correcting himself, realizing that, in reality, having those amenities just evened the playing field.

“No, I guess it's not an advantage,” he said with a laugh. “But it has been really good.”

Along with the Panthers' bounty of new facilities, Cooper has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Now at the season's midpoint, no team has had more receivers catch a pass (nine) than Paint Branch, and that includes the air-heavy offenses of Thomas S. Wootton and Rockville.

At Cooper's disposal is first-year varsity receiver Ryan Stango (20 catches, 385 yards), senior Javonn Curry (24 catches, 364 yards), senior Kevin Koomson (11 catches, 115 yards), and several others in the slot. In a surprisingly dominant 54-7 rout of Einstein on Friday, Cooper eclipsed the 300-yard threshold through the air, finding Curry three times for a touchdown, and two other receivers for scores. All that, and Cooper is just as dangerous, if not moreso, on the ground.

A hybrid quarterback, the senior led Paint Branch in rushing through the first four games, hitting a season-high 87 yards in a 21-13 season-opening win against Springbrook.

“I always try to establish myself as a passer first,” he said. “Then I'll go into a hybrid.”

Meanwhile, Paint Branch has officially established itself among the county's elite. The Panthers face Northwest (4-1) this week in a matchup of two of the county's best teams.

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