He had so much to do in his first home football game as Damascus High School’s new athletic director — officials to direct, students to help, hands to shake — but Cliff Elgin also took a moment to appreciate where he was.
“It’s a little different here,” Elgin said with a smile, nodding toward the hundreds of loyal green-and-yellow-clad fans in the grandstands at the school’s old stadium, in what some call “Maryland’s best football town.”
The air was thick with barbecue smoke because some had shown up hours early to tailgate. Shirtless male students with painted faces and cheerleaders in skirts with pompoms cheered in front of the band. The sun set behind the town’s water tower, which is painted with the football team’s block “D” logo. And the announcer bellowed the traditional call — “It’s Friday night in Damascus!” — as the Swarmin’ Hornets stormed the field to play Einstein.
It felt like old times for a football-proud community, yet this was the first time the team was back on its home field after a sexual assault made national headlines and led to an administrative overhaul at the school. Damascus has a new principal, athletic director and junior varsity football coach and is under probationary oversight by Montgomery County Schools as part of the fallout from last year’s horrific case, in which members of the junior varsity team were accused of sexually assaulting several teammates with a broomstick in the locker room.
One key administrator who remains in place is longtime varsity coach Eric Wallich, a decision that has invited scrutiny from some in the community while also drawing robust support from others who believe Wallich and the football team have been cast in an unfair light. His teams have maintained the backing of their powerful booster club and the town’s youth football organization, yet even those supporters have grappled with a central question: How does this football-loving town move on without forgetting?
“I think the community learned a lot of lessons and had a good long look at itself after,” said Ed O’Brian, a Damascus football parent who is also the booster club’s membership coordinator. “Don’t get me wrong; there’s people in the community who want to see the football team shut down … but all you would do is punish 55 to 100 kids who did nothing.”
The school has not lost any boosters because of the scandal, according to O’Brian — the booster club is still the largest and most active in Montgomery County, with several hundred members — but Wallich and the community are bracing for the impact of an ongoing external review of the school’s reporting practices and supervision of athletics and extracurricular activities, which is being conducted by law firm WilmerHale and is expected to be released in the coming weeks. The firm will be paid up to $250,000 for its work.
The football team will remain under probationary oversight for a year after last year’s assault on Halloween, when several junior varsity players pinned down teammates and sexually assaulted them with a broomstick in the locker room, which was unsupervised for a 25-minute window that afternoon before the team’s final practice of the season. Four players were charged with first-degree rape; each suspect was originally charged as an adult, but each later had his case transferred to juvenile court. The suspects and victims were all 14 or 15 at the time.
Each of the suspects has pleaded to being involved in the attacks, but because juvenile hearings have not been opened for the full proceedings, it is not clear what charges the teens have pleaded to or what punishment or rehabilitation recommendation each of the defendants face.
The fallout at Damascus was swift last spring, when former principal Casey Crouse stepped down from her post and took a job in the school system’s central office. Former athletic director Joe Doody and former junior varsity coach Vincent Colbert were replaced. The county announced in May that Wallich would be retained.
All four of the adults were informed of the assaults on the night they occurred; Colbert spoke with Wallich, who passed information about the alleged assault to the athletic director and to Crouse, according to a group text message seen by The Washington Post. None called the police that night; The Post reported in March that school officials waited more than 12 hours to tell police about credible allegations that at least one player had been sexually assaulted with a broomstick.
Wallich declined to be interviewed for this story, writing in an email: “I’m not doing interviews with certain media including [The Post]. I lost respect for just about everyone during this media coverage last year. We have moved on and turned the page. I’m done discussing the past.”
The traditions of Damascus were ever-present in its 37-0 win over Einstein in the home opener, in which Wallich coached with his typical vigor in front of a packed crowd that wouldn’t leave until the final whistle. Behind Wallich and in front of the student section stood new principal Kevin Yates, who was appointed in July after having taken over for Crouse on an interim basis in May. Roaming the sidelines was Elgin, hired in May to replace Doody.
“Eric, he had a tough year, too,” Elgin said of Wallich. “I’m doing everything I can to make sure they get what they need and that everything is being done correctly, with the supervision. We’re checking in on all our programs. That’s a countywide thing. That’s just not Damascus.”
There are some less convinced that the county has done enough to address the issues, and whether Wallich should still be the coach. WilmerHale, which has been investigating the school since April, is examining more than the 2018 incident and set out to review any other reports of sexual assault, bullying or hazing within the athletic department since 2017.
Montgomery County Schools officials have not commented on the decision to retain Wallich. The county’s athletic director, Jeffrey Sullivan, declined to be interviewed.
“I know there have been calls for shutting down the whole program for a year, taking a break, wiping out all of the coaches and starting over,” said Janis Sartucci, an activist with the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County. “And I think that goes to the question we see in all of these institutions where this has been an issue: Can there be real change if the same decision-makers are left in place? That’s always the problem.”
Damascus has long been considered one of Maryland’s most prominent high school football teams. The school’s 10 state championships — all won after 1981 — are tied for second most in the state’s history, and the school has consistently featured some of the D.C. area’s top college prospects. This year’s team features the top-rated recruit in the country, defensive lineman Bryan Bresee, who has committed to defending national champion Clemson.
Under the direction of Wallich, who graduated from Damascus in 1990 and became the head coach in 2008, the varsity team won a Maryland-record 53 straight games and three consecutive state titles from 2015 to 2017. That winning streak was believed to be the longest in the country before it was snapped with a loss to Oakdale in the state playoffs on a frigid Friday night in November, just 18 days after the sexual assault.
While other Montgomery County high school teams must fend off private school recruiting, Damascus has restocked talent consistently through its own pipeline: the Damascus Sports Association youth program.
“Most youth football organizations, their numbers are dwindling. And we’re not. Damascus is very proud, old tradition,” said Adam Cooley, the commissioner of the Damascus Sports Association. “We’ve done what we’ve done, supported the victims. … It’s been tough, but we’ve all kind of come together as a family. It’s a big, giant football community.”
Elgin watched that new community come together for the first home game last month and tried to keep it running as smoothly as possible. He grew up in Montgomery County, served as an assistant athletic director at Clarksburg and understands the history of the Damascus program, but to be a part of it on the first home game of the season was a wholly different experience. He stood on the field after the victory, near the kneeling players who listened to Wallich give his customary postgame speech.
Eventually, Wallich was greeted by his family on the field, and his players celebrated as they ran back to the locker room. It was almost the end of another Friday night in Damascus, yet some are still grappling with the idea of moving on from last year’s events.
“I don’t think we’re just ready to move on from it,” O’Brian said. “I think people still have it in their minds. Most of these kids will until they’re out of the school.”
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