It took River Hill less than two months to go from tackling dummy back to king of the hill in Howard County football.
Since losing back to back games in September — including a 14-0 loss to Atholton Sept. 16 — the Hawks have won eight in a row, culminating with a 21-12 win at Atholton (10-2) Friday night for the 3A East regional championship.
River Hill will now host 3A North champion Aberdeen (10-2), next Friday night at 7 p.m.
"We just came back strong and we knew that we had to do it for ourselves, for our fans, and for the county to see that we're on top, and we're doing that," River Hill senior Raamah Vaughn said. "We now know that wins aren't given to us."
The Raiders struck first on a 45-yard run up the sideline by quarterback Brian McMahon, who broke numerous tackles on the scramble.
But Atholton's next drive ended on a fumble at midfield, caused by Justin Arn and recovered by Noah Carter, which led to a long River Hill scoring drive. Aaron Wells capped the six-minute, 48-yard series with a short run to give the Hawks the lead after a Davis Grove kick.
It was the first time Atholton trailed in the first half all season.
"We took it to them ... we pounded them. We didn't even throw the ball, we were moving the ball up and down the field," said River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen, who was a football and baseball standout for Atholton in the early 1990s. "We made it a four quarter game ... unfortunately we weren't able to put it away earlier."
River Hill scored again on a 29-yard run by Wells with only 30 seconds left in the first half. That score came after Atholton turned the ball over on downs at midfield.
Wells was on the sideline for the loss to Atholton earlier this season with a knee injury, and has also missed time this season with a tender ankle.
"Tonight I felt like I was back to normal, no injuries or anything, I feel good," he said. "Our defense played tremendously the whole game, that's what helped us all the way through. When they took that turnover that just totally changed the momentum, we were going to score."
The Raiders attempted to score again before halftime, but were undermined when Arn intercepted a pass at midfield.
River Hill was on the verge of breaking the game open late in the third quarter, but Atholton defensive lineman Paul Federinko recovered a Hawks fumble on the 7-yard line to nullify the threat.
That led to a five and a half minute, 93-yard drive by Atholton, capped by a 7-yard Kenny Thomas touchdown run. The Raiders attempted to tie the game on a McMahon run, but several River Hill defenders stood him up just shy of the goal line.
The Atholton defense came through with a 3-and-out to get the ball back in the hands of the offense, but that drive ended when a fake punt on 4th-and-13 from the Raiders' own 23-yard line was stopped seven yards short of a first down.
Atholton coach Kyle Schmitt took responsibility for that misfire.
"We had some mistakes and the mistakes started with us, we blew that fake at the end," Schmitt said. Punter "Brett (Haas) did what he was told and that's on me ... we didn't do a good enough job of coaching that situation."
River Hill got the ball back inside the Atholton 30, and after six plays and four time outs — three by Atholton — Vaughn delivered the dagger when he ran into the endzone from eight yards out.
Davis Grove then kicked the extra point to make it a two-score game with less than two minutes left.
Any remaining glimmer of hope for Atholton was snuffed out when Randall Lawson intercepted a desperation pass, allowing the Hawks to kneel out the clock.
"As our coach says, it doesn't matter how you start it's how you finish it, and we're finishing it powerful," Vaughn said. "We're showing everybody that River Hill football is back, and we don't ever die out."
River Hill has now won the regional title six out of seven years. Their only loss in that stretch was to eventual state champion Wilde Lake in the 3A East championship game last year.
"Last year was a really disappointing season for us and we knew that this season we (needed to) come out with more focus, more intensity and we knew we could be one of the best teams in Maryland," Wells said. "We have a great line, our defense is amazing, and we have backs that can run the ball."
Friday's loss ended Atholton's best season in school history, as the Raiders won ten games in a row and claimed the school's first outright county title.
"Our kids are crushed," Schmitt said. "But we've got great kids and I'm really proud of them. They're not going to realize it tonight but maybe by Thursday they'll enjoy Thanksgiving and they'll remember a lot of great memories this season ... but this is going to sting for awhile."
Last year, Atholton stunned River Hill, 10-0, in a regular season game, ending the Hawks 48-game league winning streak. But the Raiders season ended with a regional semifinal loss to Wilde Lake. A week later, they were preparing for 2011.
"We were out here at this time last year running sprints on an icy parking lot doing plyometrics and sprints," Atholton senior Kenny Thomas said. "To fall short, there's no worse feeling than this right now ... our ultimate goal was the state championship and to have the ring, and we fell short. It was states or bust ... we didn't achieve what we were supposed to. County champs is OK, but thats not what we wanted overall.
"Right now all I can think about is this loss," he added. "I'm sure we'll get over it as a team eventually, but right now it hurts."
Schmitt knows that the sting of Friday's loss will eventually subside, and his team will be ready to pick up where it left off next year.
"We've got a bunch of seniors who are going to play college football and a bunch of underclassmen who are ready to get in the weight room," he said. "A rivalry has begun and it will continue on here over the next couple of years."
RH (10-2) 0 14 0 7 - 21
A (10-2) 6 0 0 6 - 12
A: McMahon 45 run (kick failed), 8:24.
RH: Wells 1 run (Grove kick), 7:19.
RH: Wells 29 run (Grove kick), :30.
A: Thomas 7 run (run failed), 8:58.
RH: Vaughn 8 run (Grove kick), 1:59.
RH: Wells 28 carries, 132 yards, 2 TDs; Griffin 11-54; Vaughn 17-50, TD; Team 57-235, 3 TD.
A: Thomas 19-112, TD; McMahon 14-110, TD; Haas 1-6; Matherson 1-4; Team 35-232, 2 TD.
RH: Vaughn 1/2, 38 yards.
A: McMahon 7/18, 53, 2 INT.
RH: Kinkead 1-38.
A: Ellison 5-39, Tennessee 1-10, Powell 1-4.
Leading kick returners
RH: Griffin 2-30
A: Matherson 1-8, Thomas 1-6.