Last year on Thanksgiving, River Hill football coach Brian Van Deusen could tell that something was wrong and it wasn't an undercooked turkey.
The strange sensation came from the fact that he wasn't at school preparing his football team for a state semifinal game the next day.
After winning five consecutive regional titles, football on the day after Thanksgiving had become a well-established tradition for Van Deusen and his Hawks. But after losing in overtime to state champion Wilde Lake in last year's Class 3A East regional title game, the only football to be played was of the backyard variety.
"That's been a nice tradition for us, practicing on Thanksgiving, we have a little alumni breakfast … so last year was a little weird," said Van Deusen, whose team defeated Atholton Nov. 18 for the 3A East title and a ticket back to the state tournament.
"Six out of seven years (winning regional titles) and last year we were just that one play away," Van Deusen said. "But I told them this is not going to be the highlight of the season. This is a big win, getting the regional championship, but there are bigger things ahead, we've got to keep going and focus on next Friday now."
The Hawks will host 3A North champion Aberdeen (10-2) at 7 p.m.
Aberdeen advanced by defeating Franklin, 32-20, and North Harford, 38-20, in the 3A North regional tournament. The Eagles are on a six-game winning streak since losing consecutive games to North Harford (38-12 Sept. 30) and McDonough (14-12 Oct. 6).
Similarly, River Hill lost back-to-back games, to Atholton and Hammond, in mid-September. The Hawks are now on an eight-game winning streak which includes the 21-12 win at Atholton.
"We now know that wins aren't given to us … we've got to work for it," said River Hill quarterback Raamah Vaughn, who scored a touchdown with less than two minutes left against Atholton. "As our coach says it doesn't matter how you start it's how you finish it and we're finishing it powerful, we're showing everybody that River Hill football is back and we don't ever die out … last year, I don't even want to think about that, it was horrible. But the tradition is back."
River Hill has outscored its opponents, 371-92, with four shutouts this year while Aberdeen holds a 394-169 edge on its opposition with two shutouts.
This is Aberdeen's first trip to the playoffs since 2004, when it lost in the regional championship game. The Eagles have won one state title, in 2003. First-year head coach Johnny Brooks previously coached for 13 years at his alma mater, Havre de Grace, leading the Warriors to the state finals in 2010. Aberdeen is led by fullback Chavez Cheatam, safety Christian Carpenter, defensive back Quintel Kelly, quarterback Kenny Faulcon and lineman Brenton Barnes, all senior captains.
River Hill, which opened in 1996, has been to the playoffs every year since since 2003, winning state titles in 2007 and 2008.
While River Hill rolls on, Atholton's best season in school history came to an abrupt end.
The Raiders (10-2), who also lost in the regional championship in 2005 and 2009, won their first outright county title — ending River Hill's reign of eight straight — and won 10 games this year. But Atholton, which had outscored four opponents 171-0 coming into Friday night, would not be satisfied with anything less than a state championship.
"It was states or bust … we didn't achieve what we were supposed to," said senior running back Kenny Thomas, who scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter to pull his team to within one point. "We were out here at this time last year running sprints on an icy parking lot and doing plyometrics, and to fall short, there's no worse feeling than this right now.
"I'm sure we'll get over it as a team eventually, but right now it hurts."
Glenelg falls in 2A South
Glenelg's impressive 2011 campaign also ended Nov. 18 with a 40-20 loss to visiting Douglass-PG in the 2A South championship game.
The Gladiators led, 14-6, after senior captain J.T. Komsa returned a fumble 65 yards for a touchdown late in the first quarter.
"I'm pretty happy with what we did this season,'' Komsa said. "During our first scrimmage we played as a team and I knew then that we'd have a good year. We were kind of the underdogs against Douglass, but I wouldn't trade my teammates for any other.''
Reporter Rick Belz contributed to this story.