Football: River Hill prepares for fourth state title game appearance

Two months ago, a state championship was pretty low on the list of priorities for the River Hill football team.

Having lost two games in a row — to Atholton on Sept. 16 and to Hammond a week later to drop to 2-2 — the Hawks' most immediate concern, like Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora's back in 2001, was just to win another game.

River Hill (11-2) did win another game, and then eight more in a row after that, most recently dominating visiting Aberdeen, 41-7, in the 3A state semifinals Nov. 25.

The win earned River Hill a trip back to M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 3, at 7 p.m. to play Thomas Johnson (10-3) for the 3A state championship.

"After our losses we knew that we had to come back stronger … and build our way back to the top. We knew we had it in us, but we had to prove it to everybody else," said senior defensive end Jason Johnson, who leads a defense that has allowed only 7.7 points per game. "We're right where we thought we would be. … We're going to come out strong (Saturday) and we're coming for the championship."

River Hill, which opened in 1996, played for its first state title in 2006, losing to Friendly in the 3A state title game. The Hawks then won back-to-back 2A state championships in 2007 and 2008.

Thomas Johnson, which competes in the Frederick County league, is playing for its first state championship since 1997 and won its only title in 1982. Coached by 26-year veteran Ben Wright, the Patriots have made the playoffs every fall since 2006, advancing to the 4A state semifinals in 2007 and 2009.

After starting the season 5-0, Thomas Johnson lost three straight, to league foes Walkersville (2A), Middletown (2A) and Linganore (3A), before rebounding to go on a five-game winning streak through the state semifinals.

The Patriots boast a balanced offense. Junior quarterback Heath Dahlgren had completed 80 passes in 149 attempts for 1,371 yards and 14 touchdowns (7 INTs) through the regional championship. Brandon Berney (1,014 yards, 14 TDs), Richie Anderson (846 yards, 8 TDs) and Doug Sponyoe (503 yards, 5 TDs) headline a multifaceted running game.

What River Hill lacks in an overwhelming passing game — the Hawks have completed 81 passes for 828 yards and 8 touchdowns this season — it makes up for with a three-headed rushing monster of its own.

Senior Aaron Wells (1,170 yards, 18 TDs), junior Evan Griffin (607 yards, 8 TDs) and senior QB Raamah Vaughn (561 yards, 10 TDs) have given opposing defenses plenty to worry about.

"When we're able to get Raamah going, we're tough to defend, with Aaron Wells and Raamah and our two halfbacks (Griffin and Randall Lawson)," coach Brian Van Deusen said. "If we can get balance in the run game, it makes us tough."

Like Aberdeen, Thomas Johnson boasts some impressive heft on its lines, including senior tackle Wayne Shultz (6-foot-5, 320 pounds) and an average weight of 245.

"I just heard they were big. That's all I heard," Griffin said.

Aberdeen's average weight per player was almost 15 pounds heavier than River Hill's, but the Hawks' advantage in quickness and experience gave them a decisive edge.

Van Deusen said that his team's relatively easy win in the state semifinals should only help them heading into the championship game.

"To shut (Aberdeen) down like that, it only adds to our confidence defensively and being healthy offensively. (We hope to) just keep that rolling," he said.

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