On Friday night, River Hill turned out the lights on its football stadium for the last time this season with a 29-7 win over Urbana. But the Hawks' season is far from over, and their next game will be played under much brighter lights.
For the fifth time in seven years River Hill will play for the state title at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Hawks will take on Huntingtown — a 34-6 winner over Milford Mill in the other 3A state semifinal — Thursday night at 7.
“It never gets old, I’ll tell you that,” River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen said. “This was a big game. We knew this would be a tough test. After watching them play Seneca Valley and Damascus, the way they handled those two (playoff) games, they were on a roll. It was going to take our best effort and I think our guys up front led the way.”
River Hill (13-0) scored first midway through the second quarter on a 14-yard run by senior Stephan Osong (109 yards on 17 carries), but Urbana (9-4) tied it up midway through the second quarter when fullback Mike Dunn punched it in from four yards out.
The drama only lasted for a few minutes though, as River Hill responded with a 35-yard touchdown pass from Austin Altman (9/14, 116 yards) to Nick Ball seven plays later, and never looked back.
Before halftime, senior defensive end Justin Nestor tackled Urbana punter Pat Coffey in the end zone after a low snap for a safety. And then the River Hill defense took control in the second half.
“We practiced all week, we watched film and we knew their tendencies, so my coach had me in the right position every play,” said senior Evan Griffin, who made three second half interceptions. “Our defense just stepped up big. We didn’t let up. We stopped a power offense. They could block, they're big and we stopped them."
Griffin caught as many passes on offense (3, 26 yards) as he did on defense, and also rushed for 50 yards and started the game with a 67-yard kickoff return.
"It definitely helps being on offense and as much as we pass I've caught a lot of balls," he said. "One of our other defensive backs (Nick Ball) is our wide receiver, so we've got great hands in the secondary."
Second half touchdown runs by Altman (1 yard) and Justin Arn (13) forced Urbana sophomore quarterback Donovan Pannell to pass the ball, and River Hill was ready.
In addition to his safety, Nestor finished with three tackles for loss and a sack, while Anthony Corrao added two sacks. As a team, River Hill sacked Pannell four times for a net loss of 25 yards, and tackled Urbana sophomore running back Raekwon Gray (17 carries, 49 yards), who had been averaging almost 100 yards per game, behind the line of scrimmage four more times.
“We knew that if we could get them into their gun or their no-huddle formation we could sack them and get them behind the line,” Nestor said. “Everybody did their job.”
Urbana managed only 15 yards of total offense in the second half, while River Hill dominated time of possession, 17:49 to 5:53. River Hill converted nine out of 12 third-down attempts in the game, while Urbana was 2/8.
"We knew if we were going to win this game we were going to have to establish the run and run the ball. We knew if we were going to get back into it, we'd have to go to the spread and try to throw it around and that really wasn't a good match up," said Urbana coach Ryan Hines. "We couldn't get the run game going and you saw the result when we went to the spread and tried to do things, it was a bad situation."
The last and only time River Hill and Huntingtown played was in Calvert County in the 2009 3A state semifinals. Huntingtown won the game, 10-7, when River Hill controversially fumbled at the Huntingtown 5-yard line on the last play of the game. The loss ended a 40-game win streak, dating back to the 2006 state finals, for River Hill.
That year Huntingtown went on to lose to 5-time state champ Linganore in the 3A state title game. It was Huntingtown's only state final until now. Huntingtown opened in 2004 but has made the football playoffs every year since 2007.
River Hill, the defending state champion, has made the playoffs every year since 2003.
“We’ve got a great team, I think we can do it again this year,” Griffin said. "We just have to stay focused all week, practice hard."
Hines took solace in the fact that his team might have lost to a pair of state champions this year when all is said and done.
Earlier this season Urbana lost to Middletown, which advanced to the 2A state championship game. Another team that they lost to, Westminster, lost in the 4A state semifinals.
“I hope (River Hill) does win,” Hines said. “So I can look at our schedule and say we lost to the 3A state champ and we lost to the 2A state champ.”
U (9-4) 0 7 0 0 - 7
RH (13-0) 7 9 6 7 - 29
RH: Osong 14 run (Potocko kick), 7:15. [7-0]
U: Dunn 4 run (Burdette kick), 6:33. [7-7]
RH: Ball 35 pass from Altman (Potocko kick), 2:53. [14-7]
RH: Safety (Nestor tackled Coffey in end zone), 1:22. [16-7]
RH: Altman 1 run (kick blocked by Wharton), 2:06. [22-7]
RH: Arn 13 run (Potocko kick), 6:17. [29-7]
U: Gray 17-49; Dunn 6-23, TD; Bettis 2-13; Team 31-69, TD.
RH: Osong 17-109, TD; Griffin 11-50; Arn 9-44, TD; Altman 10-17, TD; Team 47-220, 3 TD.
U: Pannell 5/12, 74, 2 INT.
RH: Altman 9/14, 116, TD, INT.
U: Ambush 3-40; Romero 1-31; Gray 1-3.
RH: Ball 3-49, TD; Griffin 3-26; Arn 1-21; Daniel 1-10; Osong 1-10.
Leading kick/punt returners
U: Ambush 4-76
RH: Griffin 1-67
U: Coffey 3-70 (23.3)
RH: Griffin 1-10
U: 3 (Griffin INTs)
RH: 2 (Ambush INT, Coffey FF, Baker FR)
Time of possession
U: 18:43 (12:50/5:53)
RH: 28:15 (10:26/17:49)