When Wilde Lake football coach Mike Harrison looks at River Hill's 5-0 record, he doesn't think about the Hawks 29-game winning streak. Instead, he thinks of what those five wins could do for Wilde Lake in the MPSSAA playoff standings.
"A win would certainly be a good thing for us," said Harrison, whose team will host the defending state champions in the Howard County Game of the Week Friday night at 7.
River Hill, which has won two consecutive state titles, leads the 3A East playoff standings with 43 points. But Wilde Lake — which sits in eighth place with 22 points behind fellow Howard County schools Glenelg (3rd, 41), Centennial (4th, 33) and Reservoir (7th, 24) — might need to win out to earn a playoff spot.
Since losing back-to-back games to Howard (13-10) and Glenelg (14-6) to start the season, the Wildecats — winners of a county-best six state titles since 1985 — have defeated their last three opponents by a combined score of 80-26. But Friday night will be Wilde Lake's toughest test of the season.
"They're a little more physical, a little more powerful than they've been in the past," Harrison said.
Last year, River Hill used a combination of quick, nimble tailbacks to go 14-0. This year, several broad-shouldered bruisers — headlined by Kalonji Moore (552 yards, 4 TDs) and Cory Daniel, along with speedy Tre Patterson — have led the charge.
Though the Hawks may look a little different, the formula is working, as River Hill has averaged a league-best 33.6 points per game.
"We're going to have to play great defense, that's always been the cornerstone of Wilde Lake football," Harrison said. "If we can hold them to two touchdowns or less we feel like we can win the game."
So far, the star of Wilde Lake's third-ranked defense (53 points allowed), has been senior Earl Mackel, who has 31 tackles (17 for loss), 5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a safety.
Wilde Lake, which is known for its straight-ahead running style, also has adopted a new look on offense for 2013. Specifically, the Wildecats have taken to the sky.
Senior quarterback Spencer Ampofo, who worked through some growing pains since starting as a sophomore, has developed into a polished passer, completing 56 passes for 772 yards and 7 touchdowns with only one interception.
"They are using a more spread passing attack this season," said River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen, whose team uncharacteristically fumbled the ball away four times in Week 4. "Ampofo has a very strong arm and (DeVon) Groves and (Malik) Jackson are making some nice catches. Defensively they have good team speed and have a strong line."
Ampofo will try to get the ball to Jackson (22 catches, 267 yards, 3 TDs) and Groves (20, 235, 2) on Friday, but Harrison will also make sure to keep the River Hill defense honest by moving the ball on the ground, putting it in the hands of junior Cuinn Mullins (30 carries, 110 yards, 3 TDs) and sophomore Quez Bradley (31, 112, 1).
Of course, the outcome of a game is more often than not decided by players whose names don't show up in the statistics.
"When you take a look at great football teams you're always going to find a great line, guys that can play in the trenches," Harrison said. "And we certainly fall into that category."
Big, experienced linemen are what has separated the league's best teams — Centennial (4-1), Glenelg (4-1), Howard (4-1) and River Hill (5-0) — from the rest of the pack this year, and Wilde Lake will have a chance to show it belongs in that conversation on Friday night.
Friday, Oct. 4 results
Centennial 34, Long Reach 7
Glenelg 35, Howard 20
Oakland Mills 52, Marriotts Ridge 21