Over the past decade, playing football in the state semifinals the day after Thanksgiving has become more than a tradition at River Hill, it has become a rite of passage.
"We talk about tradition a lot, and how it started in 2005 with us beating Severna Park down there and making our first trip to the states and now we've done it eight out of nine years," said coach Brian Van Deusen, whose team will visit Linganore (11-1) Friday night at 7 in the 3A state semifinals. "We've got a pretty impressive run going and it's a cool tradition to practice Thanksgiving morning. We always do an alumni breakfast and we have a lot of alumni come back to support the team. We're excited to keep that going."
One month ago, it looked as if the post-Thanksgiving football tradition wouldn't continue this season for the River Hill (10-2).
On Oct. 18, undefeated River Hill was stunned by Hammond — 47-38. The Hawks lost again two weeks later, 21-3, to Howard.
At times, the Glenelg Gladiators, whose only loss was to River Hill, 7-3, in Week 1; the Howard Lions, who closed the regular season with four straight wins; and the Reservoir Gators, who took a six-game winning streak into the regular season finale at River Hill, seemed as though they might be the ones to go on an extended playoff run.
But Van Deusen, who has coached the Hawks to 146 wins against only 25 losses in 14 seasons, knew what he had in his locker room.
"We were never really concerned. We knew we didn't play well in a couple of games and a lot of that was due to our injuries. In one of the games having our three starting running backs out, that's tough to overcome," said Van Deusen, who at one time or another was without Chris Galloway (230 yards, 2 TDs on 25 carries), Aiden Gelb (408 yards, 3 TDs, 43 carries) and Kalonji Moore (1,100 yards, 12 TDs, 137 carries). "We knew if we could polish up some things defensively ... we'd be able to fix some of those things, and then guys started getting healthy. Our goal is to be playing our best at the end of the season, and I think we're putting that together."
After the Howard loss in Week 9, the Hawks closed the regular season with a 14-13 win over Reservoir. In the playoffs, they have recorded back-to-back shutouts, 49-0 at City College and 28-0 over Reservoir.
On Friday night at Linganore, the Hawks will be facing a team with just as much momentum, and home field advantage.
The Lancers have had an impressive turnaround this season, finishing the regular season 9-1 after winning only three games last year.
"I think we're where we want to be. You want to be playing your best when the games mean the most," said coach Rick Conner, who is 110-31 in 12 years at Linganore. "Playing a team like River Hill, though, makes everything that much more important and challenging."
The Lancers' only loss came against undefeated 2A state semifinalist Middletown on Nov. 1.
"When we played Middletown we felt like we were doing all the right things, we felt like we were coaching them well. Our kids felt like they were playing hard, but in reality I don't think we were doing any of those things well," said Conner, who coached Linganore to two of its five state titles, in 2003 and 2009. "I don't want to say it was a good thing, but it made us re-evaluate what we were doing and look at how we want to coach and play, and I think that everyone on our team, both coaches and players, have grown from that game."
Last week, Linganore blasted five-time state champion Urbana, 51-13, in the 3A West regional championship game. River Hill hosted Urbana in the state semifinals last year, winning 29-7 on the way to its fourth state title.
"They (Urbana) didn't really have an answer (for Linganore). Urbana is one of the top teams in the area year in and year out, so to see Lingtanore play that well; they're gonna be tough," Van Deusen said. "(Senior Philip Butler) is an excellent back: very quick, elusive. And they have another back behind him (sophomore Donte Butler) who is almost just as good. They rotate backs in and ... they can mix in the pass. Their receiver, (senior Josh Gontarek) is a great split end. They're balanced."
Butler rushed for more than 300 yards and five touchdowns in the win over Urbana, so the Hawks' defense — led by Logan Kirby (74 tackles, 5 sacks), Anthony Corrao (71 tackles) and Tyler Smith — will have to prevail at the line of scrimmage to contain Linganore's run game.
"It's going to be a tough test. Linganore is very athletic," Van Deusen said. "They're very explosive, so we've got our work cut out for us. Hopefully we can get a little pressure and hopefully our D-line, which has been playing pretty well all year, can be disruptive and make some plays in the backfield ... it all starts up front with those guys. If they can be disruptive and keep their guys away from our linebackers and let them run to the football."
By the numbers
RH: Kalonji Moore 137 carries, 1,100 yards (8.0 per carry), 12 TDs; Aiden Gelb (injured) 43-408 (9.5), 3.