The way that the 2012 Howard County football season has gone so far, it's amazing that any team has made it to the halfway point without sustaining a loss.
So far, eight games have been decided by a touchdown or less, and three games have gone to overtime — including Marriotts Ridge's upset of Long Reach last Saturday. There have been six games this season in which a team defeated an opponent with a better record than its own, and each week has yielded new surprises.
"It speaks to the fact that you've got to show up every week. If you sleep, you'll get beat," said first-year Mt. Hebron coach Phil Zacharias, whose undefeated Vikings visit River Hill (5-0) on Friday night. "But that's the fun part about coaching is that you get to prepare for something new every week."
The Vikings, who are 5-0 for the first time since 2004, and the defending state champion Hawks are the only two teams in the league that have managed to navigate the perilous first month of the season without tripping up.
"It'll be a good matchup. They're playing well, and it's kind of neat to have a homecoming game that's big like that," River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen said.
While Mt. Hebron's scoring differential of plus-103 points is impressive, three-time state champion River Hill — which has outscored opponents by an average of 36 points per game — has to be considered the favorite.
"They've got a résumé and it's excellent. They do it right," Zacharias said. "That's the model. I respect them to the highest level ... They've been to the finish line before."
The Hawks have long been known for a nearly unstoppable rushing attack and shutdown defense, but this year they've added a top-flight passing game as well.
Senior quarterback Austin Altman has completed 38 passes for 917 yards and 11 touchdowns, distributing the ball to six different players.
"We're just excited about all the things we've got and we've just got to keep building on what we have," said Altman, who is looking forward to Friday night's showdown. "I've heard great things about (Zacharias) and I know they'll be ready. ... We're excited to play another undefeated team."
And although Mt. Hebron's brutal second-half schedule features five teams which have already won a total of 16 games this season, the Vikings did not get to this point by accident.
Senior quarterback Malik Gilmore has thrown for 554 yards and eight scores, and Zach Nicholas has a combined 400 yards and seven touchdowns rushing/receiving. Gilmore might also be one of the best punters in the state, and the Vikings defense has allowed just 58 points — only one more than River Hill.
Whatever happens on Friday night though, Zacharias knows that the season has many more twists and turns to negotiate before it's over.
"It's certainly an important game," he said. "But it won't make or break our season."
Marriotts Ridge beats Long Reach for first time
For the second week in a row, Long Reach proved that any team can beat any other team. But this time the Lightning was on the losing end.
A week after shocking defending county champ Atholton, 13-12, Long Reach fell to Marriotts Ridge, 28-27, in overtime on Sept. 29.
Marriotts Ridge, which ended a 32-game losing streak earlier this season, had never beaten Long Reach before.
The Mustangs won the game when quarterback Chase Sanchez hit Duncan Campbell for a touchdown and two-point conversion in overtime. Marcus Smith led the Mustangs on the ground with 183 yards and two touchdowns.
"We just hung around and hung around and there we were at the end," coach Tom Minard said. "We all kind of looked at each other like, did that really happen?
"I've been telling the kids, you just never know. You just go out and compete and anything can happen."
Daquan Dixon scored two touchdowns for Long Reach.
Friday night schedule:
Atholton (4-1) at Oakland Mills (0-5)
Glenelg (2-3) at Marriotts Ridge (2-3)
Hammond (2-3) at Wilde Lake (3-2)
Howard (3-2) at Long Reach (1-4)
Mt. Hebron (5-0) at River Hill (5-0)
Reservoir (2-3) at Centennial (1-4)