After a first half in which just about everything that could go wrong did for No. 2 River Hill, the Hawks regrouped behind a strong defense and a big performance from Justin Arn to win their second straight state Class 3A football championship and finish off a 14-0 season.
Arn, a running back and linebacker, rushed for two second-half touchdowns and had an interception as River Hill came from behind for only the second time this season to defeat Huntingtown, 18-14, Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium.
“At halftime, we just realized this is the last time we would be wearing these jerseys and we came out and gave it our all,” said Arn, one of 17 Hawks seniors.
Arn gave the Hawks their first lead on a 20-yard touchdown sprint with 8:13 to go. His interception with 5:40 left enabled the Hawks to drive the clock down to 1:07 before they turned it over on downs at Huntingtown's 29-yard line.
As time wound down, Hurricanes quarterback Zach Piazza had his team on the move, but Evan Griffin's interception in the end zone sealed the victory and the Hawks' fourth state title since 2007.
The Hawks won their 24th straight game and paid back the Hurricanes (12-2), of Calvert County, for a 2009 state semifinal loss that ended a 40-game River Hill win streak.
In the first half, mistakes cost the Hawks dearly, and they kept piling up — a roughing the punter penalty, a bad snap, a short punt, a turnover, a missed field goal. They all helped the Hurricanes, who have never won a state title, build a 14-6 halftime lead.
“We didn't play River Hill football in the first half,” Hawks coach Brian Van Deusen said. “We had too many penalties and [one turnover], so a little disappointing, so we made some adjustments at halftime and we really got our running game going. ... We cut it to within two, and our defense stepped up the rest of the game.”
The momentum started to shift in the early minutes of the second half, especially after Justin Nestor and Cyrus Vaughn sacked Piazza for a 10-yard loss, forcing a punt.
On their next drive, the Hawks went 64-yards on 12 plays, and Arn (13 carries, 76 yards) ran 10 yards for the score to cut the Hurricanes' lead to 14-12. The Hawks, who did not get an extra point or a conversion the whole game, had Stephan Osong's conversion run stopped by Joshua Woodburn.
The teams traded three-and-outs before Huntingtown's next drive stalled, thanks in part to a holding penalty. The Hawks went 82 yards on nine plays, capped by Arn's 20-yard touchdown as he ran behind Nestor, bouncing off Hurricanes all the way to the end zone.
For much of the second half, the Hawks went to their running game, and on the last drive they relied on Nestor, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound guard, to clear the road.
“He's been unbelievable all year,” Van Deusen said. “He's been the leader of our line. ... When we need key yards, we run right behind him. You saw that on that last drive where we were able to run five or six minutes off the clock. A lot of the plays were going to the left behind him.”
Early on, it was a much different story with almost everything going Huntingtown's way, especially after Osong scored the Hawks' first touchdown. A bad snap doomed the extra point, and the Hawks only pulled within 7-6 with 2:40 left in the first quarter.
After forcing the Hurricanes to punt on their next drive, the Hawks were called for roughing the punter, and Huntingtown's fourth-and-9 turned into a first down near midfield. The Hurricanes then went 56 yards on seven plays, capped by Arnez Bowens' 1-yard touchdown run that, along with Noah Reeves' extra point, gave Huntingtown a 14-6 lead with 9:11 to go in the half.
River Hill's next drive lasted two plays before Colton Rowe stripped Griffin of the ball and Robert Ridgewell recovered for the Hurricanes. The Hawks stopped Huntingtown's next drive and had a chance to add points, but Alex Potocko's attempt at a 28-yard field goal was wide to the right.
“We knew we were better in the sense that we did it to ourselves,” Osong said of the first half, “and we wanted to come out and take it to them, because this is our last year as seniors. Winning as juniors was all good, but leaving now with this is just amazing. I'm just speechless.”
River Hill quarterback Austin Altman finished 9 for 16 passing for 150 yards. Griffin ran 13 times for 89 yards. Bowens led Huntingtown with 22 carries for 105 yards.
H 7 7 0 0 — 14
RH 6 0 6 6 — 18
H—Bowens 2 run (Reeves kick)
RH—Osong 1 run (pass failed)
H—Bowens 1 run (Reeves kick)
RH—Arn 10 run (run failed)
RH—Arn 20 run (kick failed)