After bursting through a reeling Atholton defensive line and sprinting 26 yards down the middle of the field for his third touchdown in a span of less than six minutes, River Hill senior Justin Arn thought that he had just delivered the knockout punch in the 3A East regional championship game Friday night at River Hill.
“You’re up 35-7 (with less than eight minutes left), you think you’ve got it," said Arn, who finished the game with 150 rushing yards to go along with a pair of catches for 87 more.
But then something interesting happened: Atholton got back up.
Aided by a River Hill fumble and an onside kick recovery, senior quarterback Luke Casey threw three touchdown passes — to senior Keyon Pinnock (4 and 49 yards) and junior Marquise Findlay-Smith (20) — in less than three minutes to pull the Raiders to within a touchdown and conversion with just over a minute left.
"Whenever you've got Luke at quarterback pretty much anything is possible. He's as good a competitor as I've coached since I've been here," said Atholton coach Kyle Schmitt, who is in his fourth season. "These kids haven't quit since January, the first day we had them and started working out. I didn't expect them to quit (now)."
River Hill finally put an end to Atholton's comeback bid when Anthony Corrao recovered Atholton's final onside kick attempt at midfield, allowing the Hawks to run out the clock.
“River Hill’s a great team, Brian (Van Deusen’s) got a state championship bunch again,” Schmitt said. “Our plan was for it to be a 48 minute game and it was, we just ran out of time.”
It was the Hawks’ 22nd consecutive win and seventh regional championship in the last eight years. River Hill also beat the Raiders for the regional title in 2011 and 2009, but Atholton has won the last two regular season meetings.
Atholton won the turnover battle on Friday night (3-2), as well as first downs (22-19) and time of possession (26:04-20:43).
“That never happened to us before, that many turnovers, I’m glad we held on for the win,” said Arn, whose team outgained Atholton on offense, 477 yards to 366. "That’s the type of team that matches us in intensity.”
Last year, River Hill defeated Atholton, 21-12, in the 3A East regional championship game en route to its third state title since 2007.
But the Raiders (10-2), who have had six games this season decided by three points or less, were not going down without a fight this time.
“Their quarterback, Luke (Casey), did an outstanding job. He’s a tough kid. We got some good shots on him, got some good pressure, but he just kept getting back up and making plays,” River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen said. “But I give our defense credit because we made the plays when we needed to.”
River Hill tackled Casey for loss nine times in the game, including six in the first half. Justin Nestor had three sacks for a net loss of 24 yards, and Logan Kirby had two.
"The pressure hurt us. It's tough to protect against," Schmitt said. "If you're in third and ten against them you're in trouble."
But Casey didn't wilt. Even after getting knocked out for one play with a minor injury late in the fourth quarter, he returned to lead the Raiders' comeback attempt.
He finished with 95 rushing yards in the second half alone, and completed 10 passes for 164 yards and the three TDs. Pinnock caught six passes for 105 yards and the two scores, and junior Isaac Murray rushed for 107 yards on 17 carries.
"Our goal was to wear them down. They’ve got a lot of players that go both ways, we were just going to come and pound it right at them, try to tire them out,” said Findlay-Smith, who also ran for a 9-yard touchdown on Atholton's opening drive. “The loss hurts, it’s gonna hurt for awhile ... We were down but we came back, we didn’t quit. I’ve never played on a team with so much heart and so much character.”
Atholton led, 7-6, for much of the first half, but Hawks quarterback Austin Altman (10/13, 209 yards, 2 TD) engineered a six-play, 78-yard scoring drive in less than two minutes at the end of the first half, ending with a 6-yard pass to junior tight end Cory Daniel, to give his team a halftime lead despite two first-half turnovers (an interception by Luke Casey and a fumble recovery by Cody Stolar).
Neither team scored on their first second-half possession, but Atholton seemed to have taken the momentum away midway through the third quarter when it sustained a 12-play, nearly five-minute drive all the way inside the River Hill ten-yard line. But then Hawks' linebacker Jason Park forced a fumble, and Chris Galloway recovered to nullify the threat.
That turnover ignited Arn's scoring spree, which proved to be the deciding points.
River Hill (12-0) will host a 3A state semifinal game next Friday night. Based on reported results, River Hill should assume the top seed in the classification and host No. 4 Urbana (9-3) in the semifinals, but check MPSSAA for the official schedule.
No. 2 Milford Mill (11-1) would play No. 3 Huntingtown (11-1) in the other 3A state semifinal.
“I have a lot of faith in my team," Arn said. "I think we can go all the way."
A (10-2) 7 0 0 20 - 27
RH (12-0) 6 8 7 14 - 35
RH: Osong 6 run (kick blocked), 8:19. [6-0]
A: Findlay-Smith 9 run (Butts kick), 2:35. [6-7]
RH: Daniel 6 pass from Altman (Arn run), :38. [14-7]
RH: Arn 78 pass from Altman (Potocko kick), 1:08. [21-7]
RH: Arn 51 run (Potocko kick, 11:12. [28-7]
RH: Arn 26 run (Potocko kick), 7:38. [35-7]
A: Pinnock 4 pass from Casey (Butts kick), 3:37. [35-14]
A: Pinnock 49 pass from Casey (Butts kick), 1:41. [35-21]
A: Findlay-Smith 20 pass from Casey (kick failed), 1:01. [35-27]
A: Murray 17-107; Casey 26-69; Pinnock 1-11; Findlay-Smith 1-9, TD; Team 45-196, TD.
RH: Arn 13-150, 2 TD; Griffin 5-59; Osong 9-52, TD; Team 32-268, 3 TD.
A: Casey 10/17, 164, 3 TD; Frazier 1/1, 6.
RH: Altman 10/13, 209, 2 TD, INT.
A: Pinnock 6-105, 2 TD; Mullens 3-40; Findlay-Smith 2-25, TD.
RH: Arn 2-87, TD; Griffin 4-59; Ball 2-37; Osong 1-20; Daniel 1-6, TD.
Leading kick/punt returners
A: Pinnock 5-105; Ovia 1-8.
RH: Griffin 1-14; Ball 1-11; Vaughn 1-6.
A: Boateng 4-104 (26.0)
RH: Griffin 1-25
Time of possession