River Hill boys basketball coach Matt Graves wasted little time reaching out to Michael Campanaro after his team beat Oakland Mills in the 2A South region semifinals on Feb. 28.
Three days later, the Hawks would play for their second region title in program history. The first came more than a decade earlier, when they not only made the final four but won the state championship in 2007. Campanaro, who spent the past four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens as wide receiver and punt returner, was a sophomore and the starting point guard on that team.
Graves wanted Campanaro to speak to this year’s group in person about his state championship experiences between games, though initially he was in Arizona rehabbing his ankle.
But by Monday, there Campanaro was at River Hill, preparing to talk to a team that had just surged past Thomas Stone in the 2A South final, and will face off against North Caroline in the state semifinals at Xfinity Center on Friday night. Obligations with the Ravens forced him to return to Maryland, so he reached out to Graves and came by practice that afternoon.
Afterwards, Campanaro recounted his state title memories while reminding these Hawks (21-4) of their state championship potential.
“It’s obviously cool, because everyone knows he’s in the NFL, so it obviously means a lot, and we all listened to what he had to say and took it in,” said guard Brendan McKenna, one of nine seniors on this team. “And obviously, he’s been the same position and finished what we want to do. So it’s just cool, hearing it from someone that high of a level in a sport.”
Campanaro harped on overcoming adversity and sacrificing for one another to benefit the team, both lessons Graves has emphasized to this group all season. But in Graves’ mind, the message meant more coming from a former player who was in the same situation and accomplished what these players are striving for.
“Mike lived through it,” Graves said. “He was sitting there as I was talking to the team, and so now those kids can relate to saying, ‘OK, look where he is now. He was sitting where we were.’ And really just to give them a sense of calmness, a sense of having to come together and I think he did a great job relaying the message that it’s all about one thing right now.”
Campanaro also spoke about the lasting impression the state title had on him. Despite playing college football at Wake Forest and professionally for the Ravens, where he played in two playoff games, he said the state finals was “one of the most fun” games he’s been a part of.
River Hill played Bethesda-Chevy Chase in the 3A state final that year, and Barons fans packed the Comcast Center — now known as the Xfinity Center — in College Park. And though the Hawks handled Mervo in the state semifinals, many expected them to get “run out of the gym.”
With Graves on the sideline and Campanaro running the offense, the Hawks pulled out a 60-51 win.
This year’s group has a similar opportunity. Should they get past North Caroline, they’ll meet either Oakdale or Lake Clifton in the state final. Like River Hill, both teams were the top seed in their respective sections.
Still, the Hawks should enter the final weekend of the season with confidence. After all, they were good enough to make it to this point — only the second team in school history to do so — and now have heard directly from someone who has achieved their ultimate goal in a River Hill uniform.
“At the end of the day, when you look back on the years, you’re going to look back at what you guys accomplished as a team,” Campanaro said. “That’s something when I was playing, I think our team did a great job of that. We stayed in the moment, and we all focused on that one common team goal.”
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