When the Howard County football schedule was released late this summer, many local fans were disappointed to see that rivals Atholton and River Hill would not play each other during the regular season.
But if those fans had known what the scenario would be a few months later, they gladly would have made the trade-off.
Atholton (10-1) will visit River Hill (11-0) Friday at 7 p.m. in the 3A East regional championship game.
Atholton and River Hill have played against each other five times in the past three seasons. The Raiders have shut out River Hill in each of their past two regular season meetings — 14-0 and 10-0 — but River Hill has won the last two times they've met in the playoffs, 21-12 last year, and 30-3 in 2009. River Hill will be playing for its seventh regional championship in the last eight years.
"We're excited to take a shot at River Hill. They're as good of a football team as I've seen in the state this year," Atholton coach Kyle Schmitt said. "They're excellent, but we've been here before (too)."
One member of the Raiders who hasn't been here before is senior quarterback Luke Casey, who transferred in from Mount St. Joseph before this season.
Casey played in plenty of big games with the Gaels, but nothing quite like this.
"It's cool that we didn't get to play them in the regular season," said Casey, who scored an overtime touchdown in a 21-20 win against Reservoir last Friday. "I haven't seen them yet, I haven't played against them yet, (so) I'm really excited just to get out there."
Last year, when River Hill visited top-seeded Atholton for the regional championship, the Hawks were actually the underdogs, having lost twice during the regular season.
But River Hill ruined the Raiders' dream season, 21-12, on the way to its third state championship.
This year, the roles will be reversed, with River Hill having outscored its opposition to this point 518-90, and Atholton having dropped a surprising 13-12 loss to Long Reach (3-7) in week four.
River Hill senior quarterback Austin Altman has already thrown 24 touchdown passes this season, setting a school record.
Six of Atholton's games this year have been decided by three points or less.
"We're just going to practice hard and get ready for them and come out ready to play," Casey said. "We keep pulling out these wins. We've got a lot of heart. It's a great team to be on."
Mt. Hebron, Reservoir fall
Although Mt. Hebron and Reservoir both fell in the opening round of the playoffs, just making it to the postseason was an accomplishment.
Mt. Hebron (6-5), which fell to River Hill, 48-13, made the playoffs for the time since 2003. Junior Zachary Nicholas scored twice in the loss, on a 10-yard run and on a 47-yard pass from sophomore Jake Snyder.
Despite losing five of their last six games, the Vikings have lots of reasons to be excited for next fall. Nicholas' classmates Dillan Solo (WR), Urek Bradshaw (LB), Antonio Vogt (LB) and Marty Stevenson (RB/LB), and sophomore Josh Bryant (WR), will all be back next season as well.
The Gators (6-5) made the postseason for the first time in school history. Reservoir, which opened in 2002, came up just a few yards short on what would have been the game winning two-point conversion in overtime last Friday at Atholton.
"Games like this, it's the flip of a coin," coach Bryan Cole said. "I'm disappointed for these guys but I'm very proud of them."
Reservoir senior James Simms had five tackles for loss, an interception, and six catches for 77 yards, with a touchdown and a two-point conversion reception from junior Max Schuster. Junior Mohamed El-zein threw a 77-yard touchdown pass to senior Robert Armstrong on a double pass play, and junior Avian White rushed for 55 yards, including a ten-yard touchdown run in overtime.