With 62 seconds left and his team clinging to an 18-14 lead over Huntingtown in the 3A state football championship game at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 29, River Hill senior quarterback Austin Altman paced nervously up and down the sideline, helmet in hand. Although he had engineered two second-half scoring drives to give his team the lead, now all Altman could do was wait and hope as his counterpart, Huntingtown quarterback Zach Piazza, tried to lead his team 70 yards to the end zone.
“There were certain plays I couldn’t watch. I turned away. I just couldn’t look,” said Altman, who completed nine passes for 147 yards. “Nerve-wracking would be the way to put it. I had confidence in the ’D,’ but you just never know. Freak plays, missed assignments. I had faith in our ’D,’ I just couldn’t watch.”
Meanwhile, on the other sideline, first-year Huntingtown coach Brendan Galligan felt that as long as his team had the ball, good things were going to happen.
“I had 100 percent confidence that we were going to score,” he said. “We practice that all the time, we execute it. I thought this is how it’s going to end, we’re going to win this thing.”
When Altman did eventually look up, he saw fellow senior Evan Griffin celebrating in the end zone, ball in hand, after intercepting Piazza’s Hail Mary attempt to preserve the 18-14 victory and River Hill’s perfect season (14-0).
“We knew they were going to take a shot deep since there was not that much time left … so I just played deep and when he threw the ball I just knew I had it,” said Griffin, who had intercepted three passes in River Hill’s state semifinal win over Urbana.
When Altman returned to the field, all he had to do was take a knee to let the final 10 seconds tick off the clock. The victory was River Hill’s 24th in a row and gave the school its fourth state championship since 2007.
“It’s a different group of guys. Each year is a different team. ... It never gets old. It’s exciting each year and every year’s a little different,” coach Brian Van Deusen said. “We lost a lot of good kids from last year’s team. People thought we might be a little down, but we started off great and just got better each week ... and that’s a credit to these guys putting in the work, watching the film and doing everything else.”
While football state championships are becoming almost an annual tradition for River Hill — the Hawks have won four in the past six seasons — Altman, who started several games last year but watched from the sideline as a second-string quarterback during the state championship run, underscored how special the experience is for each new group.
“It’s routine for the coaches to get guys ready to win a state championship, but each class, it’s new for them. Last year’s team does not look like this year’s team,” he said.
The game was River Hill’s closest of the season, surpassing a 35-27 regional championship win over Atholton. In that game, the Raiders rallied furiously to score 20 points in the last three minutes.
The title game was different, though, because the Hawks trailed at halftime for the first time this season.
River Hill had missed an extra point and a field goal, fumbled the ball away and committed four costly penalties to dig itself a 14-6 hole.
“Heads were down just minding our own business, and then we all came together and realized this was the last time we’d be wearing our jerseys together as seniors,” Justin Arn said. “If we wanted to go out with a bang and go out good, we had to get it together."
Arn played with that sense of urgency in the second half, scoring a pair of rushing touchdowns, the second from 20 yards with 8:15 remaining, and then intercepted a pass on the River Hill 12-yard line with less than six minutes left to end a Huntingtown threat.
The Hawks then went on a drive of nearly five minutes, to inside the Huntingtown 30-yard line, but the Hurricanes got the stop. That set up the last-minute drama that ended with Griffin’s interception.
Arn finished with 138 yards from scrimmage (71 rushing, 67 receiving) and Griffin added 186 all-purpose yards (94 rushing, 16 receiving, 76 return).
“It all starts in that weight room the Monday after we finished last year’s state championship game. All of the seniors left, everybody had to start in the weight room, we all built up our strength,” said senior lineman Justin Nestor, who finished with five tackles for loss, including a 10-yard sack. “We came back and went undefeated and did what we had to do.”
The win avenged a loss to Huntingtown in the 2009 state semifinals.
Hu (12-2) 7 7 0 0 - 14
RH (14-0) 6 0 6 6 - 18
Hu: Bowens 2 run (Reeves kick), 6:30. [0-7]
RH: Osong 1 run (kick failed), 2:40. [6-7]
Hu: Bowens 1 run (Reeves kick), 9:11. [6-14]
RH: Arn 10 run (run failed), 4:23. [12-14]
RH: Arn 20 run (kick failed), 8:13. [18-14]
Hu: Bowens 21-104, 2 TD; Rowe 5-32; Piazza 13-13; Team 23-150, 2 TD.
RH: Griffin 14-94; Arn 13-71, 2 TD; Osong 9-35, TD; Altman 5-6; Team 41-206, 3 TD.
Hu: Piazza 15/26, 154, 2 INT
RH: Altman 9/17, 147
Hu: Rawlings 8-60; Woodburn 4-49; Rowe 1-17; Kelly 1-14; Bowens 1-14.
RH: Arn 2-67; Ball 3-36; Griffin 2-16; Osong 1-16; Daniel 1-12.
Leading kick/punt returners
Hu: Freeland 3-90 (30.0)
RH: Griffin 4-76 (19.0)
Hu: Forschen 3-149 (49.7)
RH: Potocko 4-229 (57.3, 1 touchback)
Hu: Rowe 5-161 (32.2)
RH: 2-36 (18.0)
Hu: 2 (Arn INT, Griffin INT)
RH: 1 (Rowe FF, Ridgewell FR)
Time of possession