The homecoming games have all been played, the county title winner has all but been decided, and the gameday temperatures have begun to drop into the 30s. After nine weeks of gridiron action, though, there is still plenty of suspense heading into the final Friday night of the regular season.
Atholton (8-1) has a one-game lead entering the final weekend of the season and can win the county title outright with a win at Centennial (1-8) Friday night.
The title picture grew a little clearer when River Hill (7-2) beat visiting Glenelg (7-2) in overtime, 21-20, last Friday night. That knocked Glenelg out of a tie with Atholton, which rolled past Mt. Hebron, 38-0. River Hill's win was also meaningful for the Hawks, who in mid-September lost back-to-back games for the first time in more than 10 years.
"It was a great win for us," River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen said. "(After) getting off to a slow start it's just been focusing on getting better each week, and this was like a playoff game. Winning this we get some more momentum, five wins in a row. We just want to keep getting better for the playoffs."
But Atholton has established itself as the clear-cut king of the hill in Howard County this year.
Quarterback Brian McMahon has passed for 920 yards and eight touchdowns this season and rushed for 584 yards and six TDs. DeQuan Ellison has caught 36 passes for 589 yards and seven TDs, and Kenny Thomas has rushed for 804 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Ean Katz (51 tackles), Pat Mullens (47), Steve Whiting (42 tackles, 10 sacks) and Cameron Fogle (seven sacks) have led the Raiders defensive unit.
Atholton has scored the most points (328) and allowed the fewest (55). They are outscoring their opponents by more than 30 points a game and that trend should continue this week.
But there are other games on Friday night that aren't so easy to predict.
Hammond (6-3), which won a playoff game for the first time last year, will visit Howard (6-3) in a game with major 3A East playoff implications. Atholton and River Hill have clinched the top two spots in that region and could be headed for a regional championship showdown at Atholton in several weeks if each team continues to win. But behind them, Stephen Decatur, Hammond and Howard are all deadlocked at 6-3 and battling for the last two playoff spots.
Howard defeated Reservoir (5-4) last week, 13-7, in overtime, virtually ending the Gators' hopes for their first trip to the playoffs.
In that game, Howard quarterback Ryan Wade put his team on the scoreboard first, tossing a 35-yard touchdown pass to Evan Jackson. Reservoir tied the game with a 19-yard touchdown pass from E.J. Montgomery to Kenny Frazier. In overtime, the Howard defense came through, stuffing Reservoir on its possession, and then Michael Anderson scored the winning touchdown on a 10-yard run.
Last year, Hammond clinched a share of its first county title with a 17-12 win at Howard in the last week of the regular season. This year, Howard hopes to get some redemption.
"The winner is in (the playoffs)," Howard coach Bruce Strunk said. "(Hammond) is a real good team and we're going to have to play as a team to win. We're starting to get healthy, we're starting to get there."
Strunk said that the Lions will need another inspired performance like they came up with Friday to get into the playoffs.
On fourth-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter on Friday, the Lions stuffed Reservoir. "That kind of summed up the game for us," he said. "When we needed the big play, we made it."
If Stephen Decatur loses at Snow Hill (6-3) on Friday, both Hammond and Howard could get in, but that's not a possibility that Strunk wants to worry about.
"I want to win to get in, I don't want to back in," he said.
In the 2A South, meanwhile, the loss to River Hill means Glenelg dropped behind Patuxent into the second spot. But Long Reach's 28-22 win over defending 3A state champ Wilde Lake, may not have been enough to get the Lightning (6-3) close enough to the fourth and final playoff spot in that region. Entering the final week of the season, Long Reach sat in the sixth spot, .11 behind McDonough in fifth, .23 behind Douglass in fourth and .66 behind Gwynn Park in third. The only problem for Long Reach is that even with one of those teams losing, the Lightning won't earn many bonus points by beating one-win Oakland Mills on Friday.
"We still have a little hope, but we need McDonough and Gwynn Park to lose," coach Pete Hughes said.