Atholton football coach Kyle Schmitt has a valuable piece of scouting material in his possession in his preparation for Friday night's 3A East semifinal game against Reservoir: video of his team's 28-25 win over the Gators from earlier this season.
One would think that Schmitt had worn out the rewind button on his remote by now — scouring the video looking for a way to penetrate the Gators' scales. Surprisingly, that is not the case.
"Reservoir's hitting its stride right now and playing really well. You can't really look at that tape at this point," Schmitt said. "From the first game of the season to now, they've gotten so much better. They're as hot as any team in the league right now."
After dropping three of their first five games — Reservoir also lost to Mt. Hebron and Wilde Lake in September — the Gators have won four of their last five. The lone loss during that stretch, a 41-0 shut out to River Hill, is forgivable. The undefeated Hawks, who will host Mt. Hebron (6-4) in another 3A East semifinal Friday night, have outscored opponents 470-77 this season, including six shutouts.
While Reservoir has always been competitive since opening in 2002, this will be its first football playoff appearance.
"We're definitely excited, this is one of the best teams we've ever had," coach Bryan Cole said. "It's not too often in football that you get a chance to avenge a loss ... it couldn't have come at a better time for our team. They're starting to see all their hard work pay off."
The Gators have never lacked talented athletes, and this year is no different. Senior running back Robert Armstrong has already become the Gators' first 1,000-yard rusher, and is also dangerous as a receiver.
"I think Robert Armstrong is as good of an athlete as there is in the county," Schmitt said.
And junior quarterback Max Schuster has emerged as a leader, getting the ball to Armstrong and James Simms, who is also a linchpin of Reservoir's fourth-ranked defense.
"(Schuster) is very efficient. They don't seem to run a lot of dead plays," Schmitt said.
While Schmitt has noticed that Reservoir has evolved into a much better team in November than it was in August, the same could be said about his own team.
The Raiders started the season with three straight wins, but each of them was decided by three points or less, and Schmitt and his coaching staff knew that it couldn't last.
"They were great wins, but something wasn't right," he said. "I thought (Reservoir) outplayed us, personally, that night. We relied on the big play (Luke Casey threw six passes to Keyon Pinnock and Brandon Anthony for a combined 210 yards and two TDs) and you can't live by that."
Indeed, one week later, the Raiders offense ground to a halt in a 13-12 loss against Long Reach, which finished the season 3-7.
While that loss turned out to be the difference between a 9-1 season and a share of the county title for Atholton, Schmitt said that it served a purpose.
"If we hadn't lost that game, we would have said 'let's make some subtle changes because it's still working: We're still winning'," Schmitt said.
Instead, the loss caused Atholton to make some real changes.
And since then, in six straight wins, they've outscored opponents 190-52 with two shutouts.
"I don't go too crazy with statistics but defense is kind of the biggest thing right now. They're getting off the field, which we weren't doing early on," Schmitt said.
A formidable running game, led by junior Isaac Murray (1,007 yards, 7 TDs) and senior center Zach Plotkin, has also been key to the Raiders' renewed consistency.
It all adds up to an intriguing match-up with Reservoir on Friday night.
"They've led us at halftime the last two times we've played," Schmitt said. "It's a rivalry."
Across the county, juggernaut River Hill will host Mt. Hebron, which has lost four of its last five games after starting the season 5-0. If things weren't already looking bad for the Vikings, starting quarterback Malik Gilmore went down with a knee injury in last Friday's loss at Hammond, and spent the rest of the game on crutches on the sideline.
But first-year Mt. Hebron coach Phil Zacharias, who has led the Vikings to their first playoff appearance since 2003, is trying to look on the bright side.
"You know what? We get to play in the Maryland state playoffs, and thats what we've got to take from it," he said. "We just have to reload. We're going to dig in ... and try to represent our school."