In a game that was packed from start to finish with huge open field plays, the margin of defeat for River Hill came down to just a few inches.
Linganore succesfully converted on fourth down three times in the second half, twice by a yard or less, including a 2-yard gain to the River Hill 10-yard line with less than four minutes left. A measurement revealed that Lancers running back Philip Butler had pushed the ball just far enough for a first down, setting up a touchdown two plays later that gave Linganore its first lead of the game.
"Some of those fourth and shorts that were inches, it's a game of inches here or there and it could have been a turnover on downs on them and it could have been our ball," said River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen, whose team was attempting to win a third consecutive state title. "It's a tough game, it's going to hurt. We had some chances, but we're proud of them ... they played tough the whole game, there's no quit in these guys."
Linganore scored 29 unanswered second half-points and withstood River Hill's final attempt to rally to post a stunning 41-38 comeback win in the 3A state semifinals Friday night.
The two teams combined for 16 offensive plays that went 10 yards or more.
Lancers senior Josh Gontarek caught touchdown passes of 68, 58 and 10 yards from quarterback Clark Stieren, and intercepted two passes in the last two minutes -- returning the first 65 yards for a touchdown to put Linganore ahead, 41-31, and the second to seal the win, allowing the Lancers to run out the clock and the Hawks' season.
"We knew we had to fight hard to come back to overcome all of those points, and we knew they were a good team and they weren't going to give it to us easy," said Gontarek, who also caught a two-point conversion. "That last interception to seal the game was the biggest play. I loved it."
Linganore (12-1) advances to play Franklin in the 3A state championship Thursday night at 7 at M&T Bank stadium.
"We played pretty well for most of the game," Van Deusen said. "We just gave up too many big plays. That's the frustrating thing, because I think we had this game with that lead."
The Hawks led, 31-12, before Linganore mounted its furious comeback.
River Hill (10-3) jumped out early in the first half, scoring on a 55-yard touchdown pass from Drew Pritchard to Cory Daniel. The Hawks held Linganore to a three-and-out on its first possession, but running back Phillip Butler — who rushed for more than 300 yards and five touchdowns in a 51-13 win over Urbana last week — broke an 82-yard touchdown run on the first play of the Lancers' next possession.
River Hill's Tre Patterson scored from nine yards out midway through the second quarter, and the Lancers responded four plays later with Gontarek's first touchdown reception.
The Hawks scored twice more before halftime on a short run by Pritchard and a 27-yard Alex Potocko field goal.
Of Linganore's 180 yards of offense in the first half, 150 came on the two long scoring plays.
After halftime, the two-time defending state champion Hawks stopped Linganore on its first possession and then took a 31-12 lead when Daniel scored on a 70-yard reception from Pritchard.
"We had a great game overall against a good team, we just fell a little short in some areas," Daniel said. "We played River Hill football throughout the year. Obviously there were some bumps in the road (during the season), and in this game as well."
River Hill had trouble avoiding the bumps once the Lancers began their improable comeback. Linganore scored 29 consecutive points after Daniel's second touchdown -- on Gontarek's second and third touchdown receptions, Butler's second rushing score and Gontarek's interception return.
But the Hawks weren't done. They rallied with a quick drive that ended in a short Kalonji Moore touchdown run, and the defense made a stop to give the Hawks the ball on their 24-yard line with 45 seconds left.
Gontarek's interception at midfield with less than 30 seconds left ended River Hill's hopes for a third consecutive state championship.
"I'm proud of these guys," Van Deusen said. "They played tough and we came back there at the end and had a chance."
The last time River Hill allowed 40 or more points was in a 47-38 loss to Hammond on Oct. 18, which ended a 30-game winning streak.
"It was a great experience playing with these guys. I didn't think we'd make it this far, especially in the middle of the season," Pritchard said. "I'm proud of our guys for pushing this far. It's just a shame we couldn't get to where we wanted to go."
Linganore 41, River Hill 38 (3A state semifinal)
RH (10-3) 7 17 7 7 - 38
L (12-1) 6 6 7 22 - 41
RH: Daniel 55 pass from Pritchard (Potocko kick), 8:56.
L: P. Butler 82 run (kick blocked by L. Kirby), 3:23.
RH: Patterson 9 run (Potocko kick), 7:33.
L: Gontarek 68 pass from Stieren (run failed), 6:41.
RH: Pritchard 1 run (Potocko kick), 2:14.
RH: Potocko 27 field goal, :08.
RH: Daniel 69 pass from Pritchard (Potocko kick), 7:32.
L: Gontarek 58 pass from Stieren (Parsons kick), 6:12.
L: P. Butler 6 run (Parsons kick), 10:38.
L: Gontarek 10 pass from Stieren (Gontarek pass from Stieren), 3:03.
L: Gontarek 65 interception return (Parsons kick), 1:55.
RH: Moore 1 run (Potocko kick), 1:13.
RH: Kalonji Moore 27 carries, 104 yards, TD; Chris Galloway 8-60; Tre Patterson 2-12, TD.
L: Phillip Butler 22-165, 2 TDs; Derek Wilson 11-38.
RH: Drew Pritchard 8/19, 212, 2 TDs, 2 INTs.
L: Clark Stieren 8/13, 197, 3 TDs.
RH: Cory Daniel 3-128, 2 TDs; Tre Patterson 2-34; Chris Galloway 1-23; Kalonji Moore 1-22; Jon Kanda 1-7.
L: Josh Gontarek 6-172, 3 TDs; Sam Weir 1-19; Adam Beiser 1-6.