River Hill was reeling. After losing two of their last three games, the Hawks were clinging to a 14-7 lead over visiting Reservoir Friday night, and the Gators were pounding the ball down the middle of the field with strapping 240-pound running back Avian White (98 yards rushing in the second half).
With less than two minutes left, Reservoir quarterback Max Schuster scored from 11 yards out — after a gut-punch 14-yard run up the middle by White — to cut River Hill's lead to one.
And then fortune smiled on the Hawks. Reservoir's extra-point attempt went wide, and after River Hill's Anthony Corrao recovered the ensuing onside kick, the game was all but won.
"It's a great feeling knowing that this was a do-or-die game coming in and we had to put everything together," Corrao said. "We came out with a different intensity tonight and the whole team rallied around our underclassmen."
Reservoir got the ball back with 20 seconds left on its own 20, but the Hawks (8-2) got two stops to end the regular season with a win and clinch their 11th consecutive playoff appearance.
"We've had a couple tough games recently and coming after (a 21-3 loss at Howard last week) we needed to get back on track," River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen said. "Our defense played pretty well. Avian is a tough kid, their offensive line is very strong ... our defense stepped up."
In 2011, River Hill lost two regular season games back-to-back before going on a 10-game winning streak to a state championship.
"We've just been telling ourselves that we're not out of it until we're out of it. There's always that chance and if we keep fighting and putting the work in it will eventually pay off and we'll get to where we want to be," Corrao said.
Reservoir got the ball late in the third quarter after forcing a River Hill punt from midfield, and embarked on a 20-play drive that ate up almost ten minutes of game clock. White carried the ball 19 times on that drive and accounted for all 74 of the Gators yards, twice converting on fourth and short.
But River Hill got the big stop on fourth and goal from the five-yard line when Cory Daniel and Samson Carnock stopped White at the line of scrimmage for a turnover on downs. Cyrus Vaughn also stopped White twice behind the line of scrimmage on that drive.
"He is a tank. I remember some times I just bounced off of him. But later in the third quarter we switched our defense because we wanted to shoot those gaps and use our quickness to get by the line and it eventually paid off on that goal line stand," Corrao said. "It was the little things — (kicker) Alex Potocko making an extra point, onside kick recoveries, turnovers — that eventually won us the game ... we're blessed to have a kicker like (Potocko) who is automatic."
River Hill scored twice in the first half, on a Drew Pritchard 1-yard quarterback keeper, and on a 2-yard run by Kalonji Moore, both set up by Reservoir fumbles. Potocko was 2-for-2 on extra points.
"It was a hardfought game but we made some mistakes, we gave them gooed field position, we fumbled the ball early," said Reservoir coach Bryan Cole, whose team dropped to 7-3 but still has a good chance to get the No. 4 seed in the 3A East playoffs. "They didn't score any points on us in the second half ... the kids played tough and hard. It's just two mistakes."
Reservoir scored its first touchdown late in the second quarter on an 11-yard passs from Schuster to Joey Janush.
River Hill's Tre Patterson led the Hawks offense in the second half with two carries for 45 yards. Cory Daniel caught two passes from Drew Pritchard for 15 yards in the second half.
The loss ended a six-game win streak for the Gators.
"They're on a roll ... you've got to clog up the line and you've got to tackle (White). He just runs and breaks so many tackles," Van Deusen said. "He's pretty athletic for that size. He's got good feet, he's got good quickness and he makes people miss. If they get in the playoffs they're going to be dangerous."
Around the league
Centennial 53, Hammond 19
Centennial had long odds at getting into the 3A East playoffs coming into the week, but the Eagles (7-3) did all they could, routing Hammond (6-4) 53-19 in the regular season finale.
Walter Fletcher led the Eagles offense, rushing for 264 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Quinn Western (5 carries, 68 yards) and Logan Tignall (1, 2) added solo rushing touchdowns. Western also intercepted a pass on defense.
Fletcher finishes the season with 1,753 rushing yards (7.4 yards per carry) and 23 touchdowns.
Chase Conley also had a big game for the Eagles, catching two passes from Tyler Morris for 98 yards and two touchdowns. Damon Reaves had a 45-yard punt return for a touchdown.
Austin Kraisser led the Eagles defense with 22 tackles (11 solo), including a sack and forced fumble.
Glenelg 33, Atholton 0
The Gladiators (9-1) clinched the top-seed in the 3A East and their first county championship in a decade with their second consecutive shutout. Over the past five games, Glenelg has outscored its opponents 161-20.
Atholton dropped to 1-9 with the loss.
Howard 21, Long Reach 6
The Lightning (1-9) scored first against rival Howard on a 35-yard pass from Kevin Tippett to Rob Carter, and led 6-0 at halftime. But the Lions (8-2) scored 21 unanswered points in the second half to win their fourth in a row heading into the 4A North playoffs.
Howard's second half touchdowns came on a 15-yard pass from Kevin Sheahin to Terrell Charles, and a pair of short runs by Charles.
Mt. Hebron 41, Marriotts Ridge 13
The Vikings routed the Mustangs (2-8) to win the fourth of their last five games.
Buffalo bound senior Zach Nicholas closed his Vikings career with a signature performance, carrying the ball 18 times for 310 yards and four touchdowns.
Fellow senior Marty Stevenson ran the ball 12 times for 63 yards and a score, and also made 17 tackles (9 solo) and recovered a fumble.
Quarterback Mike Lettieri accounted for Mt. Hebron's final touchdown with a 1-yard run.
The Vikings (4-6) scored 104 points in their first eight games this season, and 80 in their last two.
Oakland Mills 18, Wilde Lake 15
The Scorpions squeezed past Wilde Lake by a field goal to finish the season 4-6.
It was Wilde Lake's (3-7) fifth loss in a row, and fifth this season by eight points or less.
Final league standings
River Hill, 8-2
Mt. Hebron, 4-6
Oakland Mills, 4-6
Wilde Lake, 3-7
Marriotts Ridge, 2-8
Long Reach, 1-9