The day after the best team in Catonsville High football history lost its only game of the season could have been as depressing as the day after Christmas.
Instead, the night after the Comets were beaten, 49-20, by host Old Mill in a Class 4A state semifinal, Catonsville players and coaches were honored as special guests at the 18th annual Catonsville Tree Lighting Ceremony on Frederick Road.
With the lights shining on the tree, coach Rich Hambor spoke glowingly of the Comet fans.
"I know we in Catonsville, as evidenced by last night, and every game we play, have the best community support — whether you are at the game, or online, or whatever — in the state," Hambor said.
Moments later, Catonsville players counted down the seconds until Santa Claus arrived on a fire truck.
They chanted 'Santa, Santa, Santa,' helping the holiday season kickoff on a merry note.
The night before, five busloads and many more Comet fans were chanting 'Hambor, Hambor, Hambor,' even when victory over Old Mill was hopelessly out of reach after Patriot running back Rob Chesson ran for 306 yards and scored seven touchdowns, breaking the state single-season scoring record for touchdowns with 49.
Chesson may have been the Grinch that spoiled the Comets' potential first-ever appearance in the state championship game, but he couldn't erase the history-making firsts that Catonsville (12-1) will hold forever.
It is the first team to ever win regional and county championships, and the first to earn 12 wins.
Hambor may not be as popular as Santa when the Christmas lights twinkle, but when the lights came on at Comet Park on Friday nights this fall, he, his coaching staff and players sure were.
The gifts they gave the fans through countless breakaway plays (31 touchdowns of 50 yards or more) came faster than Santa's reindeer dashing through the sky.
He might even have thought of a few new verses — although we saved him the trouble — for "The Night Before Christmas."
"Now DeAndre! Now Deniko! Now Lipscomb and Hylton!
March on Comets! On Tebo! On Antoine and Dixon!"
DeAndre Lane was a dasher all season, rushing for 1,728 yards and leading the team with 25 touchdowns.
The junior first-team All-County back's 3-yard touchdown run with 10:42 left until halftime, and Eric Medinger's extra point, cut Old Mill's lead to 14-7, in the state semifinal, Nov. 25.
However, that was the closest the Comets would get.
After Julius Jones forced a Chesson fumble that Joe Tebo recovered, the Comets punted and the elusive Chesson raced 50 yards on the first play from scrimmage. The Patriots (13-0) never looked back after the pivotal moment.
Deniko Carter, a dancer on the sidelines during most pregame warmups, seemed to always be in tune with quarterback Aaron Jones (16 touchdown passes).
Carter, a senior first-team All-County and Crab Bowl selection, had a 47-yard touchdown reception from Jones for the 62nd and final touchdown of Catonsville's historic season in the second half against Old Mill.
That came after Josh Hylton scored on a 22-yard run late in the third quarter for the Comets' second touchdown.
At the Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony, Carter reflected on the season.
"I can't say how proud I am of my team and my coaches and the support of the community," said Carter, who caught nine touchdown passes this fall and is the all-time Comet leader in receiving yards. "We made history — first county champions, first regional champions."
Hambor let the team know that after the Old Mill loss.
"I told them 'You are always the first. They are never going to change that.'" he said.
Hambor, who lives in Cockeysville, but has adopted Catonsville, just like the community has adopted him, will have the memory of the postgame celebration, following the 28-18 regional title victory over Poly, etched in his mind forever.
"After we beat Poly, we ran over to the crowd. They were all coming up to the railing, and all the kids wanted to say, 'thank you,' to the crowd," Hambor said. "That was the best, just how excited everybody was and how happy and thankful everybody was. That was the whole culmination of everything — 15 years. At least 2,000 fans on a holiday Friday. You can't ask for anything more. That's why I love Catonsville."
Hambor (57-30 overall record, five playoff appearances) was an assistant for seven years before taking over the head job eight years ago.
He's been blessed with a quality staff that includes former Comet coach Warren Como, and assistants John Youngberg, Jeff Graves, Eric Warm, George Dunn and Seth Behler.
Youngberg made sure the offensive line, that included center Nathan Reeves, guards Jon Reymann and Brandon Dixon, tackles Antoine Wright and Travis Davis, tackle/tight end Mason Klompus and tight end Julius Jones, was a cohesive unit.
"When there was something wrong, we got to the sideline and met with coach Youngberg and we fixed it," Klompus said. "We are all friends on the line, and we get along real easy. It made for a fun time being on that line."
Klompus started two games for injured Davis at the beginning of the season, but moved to tight end for the Comets' short-yardage package during the playoffs.
He cherished the memory of being in the lineup when Catonsville scored two touchdowns in a 30-28 victory over Paint Branch in the first round of the regional playoffs.
"I was in there, and we converted two fourth downs and got two touchdowns. I was just happy to be a part of that," Klompus said.
The 6-foor,1-inch, 255-pound junior, noted that linemen, "don't get the glory, but if we get the (running) backs in the papers, we've done our job."
Junior Nigel Minter was a backup defensive back for a team loaded with quality secondary players, such as Lane, Carter, Joe Tebo, Josh Frazier and Jerome Williams.
"It feels great backing up some of the great stars on our team," Minter said. "I did my best to make noise on the kickoffs."
That defense returned six interceptions for touchdowns and had two fumble recoveries for touchdowns.
Defensive ends Sean Lipscomb (team-high 90 tackles) and Julius Jones (85 tackles), both first-team All-County picks, were keys to forcing so many turnovers. So were interior linemen Wright (80 tackles) and Josh Schmidt, along with linebackers Joseth (89 tackles), Josh Hylton and Julian Singletary (73 tackles).
Although Lipscomb was overcome with emotion during the waning moments of the Old Mill game, he was in better spirits at the Christmas Tree lighting.
"It feels good to still be loved, although we lost the state semifinal," Lipscomb said. "We still made the town know for the first time in history, we did a lot. They appreciate us for giving them a good season."