With only two weeks left in the 2013 Howard County football regular season, the playoffs have essentially begun. Every team in the league has at least one loss, so winning out is the only way any team can ensure a ticket to the playoffs.
These next two games are especially important for Howard (6-2) and Hammond (5-3), who are clinging to the fourth and final playoff spots in the 4A North and 2A South regions, respectively.
"Every game was a playoff game for us from the beginning, that's why we started out so well," said Howard captain Peter Emery, whose team became Howard County's first 4A school this year. "Playing all 3A teams, it's real tough to get noticed in the 4A, so we come out like every game is a playoff game."
And when the Lions host River Hill (7-1) this Friday evening at 7 p.m., it could virtually be an elimination game for Howard, which sits behind Perry Hall (7-1), Paint Branch (7-1) and Sherwood (6-2) in the 4A North playoff standings, and just ahead of Kenwood (5-3).
"This is huge," Howard coach Bruce Strunk said. "We're not sitting back and waiting for somebody else to lose. We need to go out and earn our spot."
River Hill owns the second seed in the 3A East region behind Glenelg (7-1) and ahead of Reservoir (6-2) and City (6-2), but the Hawks — who saw their 30-game win streak end with a 47-38 loss to Hammond in Week 7 — can't afford another loss either with Howard and Reservoir ahead on the schedule.
"Against Hammond we were missing our three starting running backs, two of which were hurt in the Wilde Lake game (on Oct. 11) and one of our top two-way starting linemen. Of those four starters, three of them were two-way starters. Chris Galloway has been out for three weeks now, Kalonji Moore came back last week and played one quarter, and Tre Patterson was able to step back into the starting halfback position last week. Hammond played a great game against us and they deserve credit," said River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen, whose team is also trying to win out to clinch at least a share of the county title for the tenth time in the last 11 years. "Right now we are just focused on getting better each week. We are excited to get most of our injured guys back this week. We expect to get every teams best effort. Howard plays very well at home and we know that it is going to be a very tough game."
While Hammond passed the ball 41 times against River Hill, completing 31 for 441 yards and six touchdowns, Friday night's game looks to be a battle of power run against power run. Both teams boast formidable offensive line units and sturdy, all-county caliber ballcarriers.
Howard senior Terrell Charles has already rushed for 1,300 yards and 16 touchdowns this season.
"We know our backs are going to run hard every single play, and so it's up to us to push that line of scrimmage back as far as possible, pick up the linebackers and create holes for them to run through, because we know they won't be caught," said Emery, a leader on both the offensive and defensive lines for Howard.
River Hill has spread the carries around a little more, but when Moore (660 yards, 5 TDs), Aiden Gelb (408, 3), Cory Daniel (281, 8), Cyrus Vaughn (270, 1), Patterson (180, 2) and Galloway (167, 1) are all available, the Hawks will be tough to slow down.
But Strunk, who won his 100th game as a head coach two weeks ago, says that the most important thing that his staff learned from the Hammond at River Hill game film didn't involve Xs and Os.
"What we saw against River Hill was we saw (Hammond) playing with emotion, and when a big play happened the momentum switched," he said.
Friday, Nov. 1 schedule
Atholton (1-7) at Reservoir (6-2)
Centennial (5-3) at Marriotts Ridge (2-6)
Long Reach (1-7) at Glenelg (7-1)
Mt. Hebron (2-6) at Oakland Mills (3-5)
River Hill (7-1) at Howard (6-2)
Wilde Lake (3-5) at Hammond (5-3)
Oct. 25 scores
Glenelg 21, Centennial 3
Howard 26, Hammond 7
Reservoir 27, Wilde Lake 7
River Hill 49, Oakland Mills 6
Oct. 26 scores
Atholton 21, Mt. Hebron 14
Marriotts Ridge 21, Long Reach 12