McLean QB Bijan Soltani (Photo: Kent Arnold/McLean Athletics)
The McLean Highlanders stand above powers like Westfield and Centreville at the mid-point
South Lakes (2-1) at McLean (3-0) 7:00 p.m. Friday
by Jim McGrath, recruitNoVA
In a Northern Virginia high school football season full of surprises, one only needs to look at the Region 6D rankings to find the biggest unlikelihood of all. There at the top, in a position that seemed to have been reserved for Westfield for the past decade, sits the Highlanders of McLean, who are 3-0 heading into tonight’s faceoff against South Lakes (2-1).
While Chantilly’s inclusion (along with Madison, as all three teams are tied at 28.0 points) at the first playoff seed is also a surprise, it may be argued that McLean’s ascension has been more dramatic, seeing as the team posted a 0-10 record in 2018, which capped a 2-38 mark between the years of 2015-18.
John Scholla took over the reins of the program after the second consecutive winless season in 2016 and immediately took inventory. He found some positive aspects to build on.
“We always had decent numbers,” said Scholla, who joined two of his seniors, quarterback Bijan Soltani and running back/defender Ryan Jessar in the Highlander football office on Thursday. “There were always 100 kids on the roster.”
But while the sign-up sheet was long, the commitment measurement was lower than the new coach wanted. He knew that the building project ahead would be arduous.
“I knew we weren’t going to contend for a (Liberty) district title right away, added Scholla, now in his fourth season. “I decided to invest in the younger guys, the ones who had played in middle school together.
The key was finding a common space, so the weight room seemed like a natural point of gravitation. “If we were going to keep the group together and establish a culture, the freshmen needed to buy into the program, especially the weight room,” said Scholla. They needed to take it seriously, get into the right competitive mindset, and be proud to play McLean football.”
The steps of progression were not immediately visible, but there were signs. Scholla’s first varsity team went 1-9, but things were looking up for the freshmen and JV. As Jessar recalled, “I think we were like 3-4-1, but in a lot of close games.”
More importantly, old habits were being broken.
Even though the varsity group went winless in Scholla’s second season, the culture trend took a major upward swing. Asked about the potential turning point, Soltani said, “it was right at the end of our sophomore season. Coach Scholla had all of the sophomores playing together, so some of the varsity players moved from varsity to JV, and we won our last (JV) game. But we played well, and it made us think about how good we could be together.”
Under the direction of strength and defensive line coach Will West, the weight room continued to be the “place to be.” Some renovations after freshman year had brought in some new equipment and a better look, but as Scholla noted, “guys still have to show up.”
They did, and in 2019, the work began to pay off, as the Highlanders vaulted to a 5-5 mark, beating rival Langley in the process, a victory that had eluded McLean for several years.
It was also here that Jessar noticed a fundamental change.
“In our third game (against Edison), we fell behind by 14 points. In the past, we would have just shut down and ended up losing. In fact, some people said, here we go again. But we won, and it was then I realized that this team was different.”
Having a long COVID break did nothing to slow the momentum, so the Highlanders were confident heading into the 2021 spring opener against perennial offensive powerhouse Mt. Vernon. And with three passing TD’s from Soltani and a running score by Jessar, McLean toppled the Majors 28-14.
More impressive than the win was the outstanding play of the defense. For the past four seasons, Mt. Vernon has regularly hung 40 points on opponents and set numerous school records for points and yards in the process. However, against the stifling McLean defense, they were held to just 18 rushing yards on 25 carries.
“We were the heavy underdog,” noted Soltani, “and it was good to prove everyone wrong.” Added Jessar, “it was the first time we came together on both sides of the ball.”
The Mt. Vernon win was followed with a 28-16 victory over Washington-Liberty, a game that saw Jessar accumulate 262 yards (128 rushing, 41 receiving, 93 returns) and a pair of scores. In its most recent game, the Highlanders once again defeated the Saxons of Langley 16-7.
Overall, the “D” has become the Highlanders calling card. In their three wins, they have allowed just over 13 rushing yards per game, while logging 15 sacks. Alec Butler leads the team in tackles with 30 (27 solo), followed by Jessar (27) and Phillippe Kabasele (26), who also leads the team with four sacks. Defensive tackle Anton Lingeman has added three sacks.
McLean is viable on offense. Soltani has thrown for 455 yards with six touchdown passes, while Jessar has run for 293 yards and three scores.
And while South Lakes presents a formidable challenge to McLean, Soltani believes in his team.
“After seeing what we have done in the first three games, we know how hard we have worked and feel like we have done everything we can to win. We’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t happen.”
– Jim McGrath