Calvert Hall's football team is fully recovered from an injury-riddled 2013 season.
The Cardinals proved as much in Friday night's 35-24 win over No. 3 Franklin, the defending state Class 3A champion that returned 18 starters.
After Calvert Hall won last year's inaugural meeting between the schools, 24-14, the Indians were determined to take their first win over a Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference team, but the Cardinals scored 15 points in the final 6:55 — a safety and rushing touchdowns by Tim Smith and Kevin Thomas — to put the game away.
"I was just proud of our kids' effort," Calvert Hall coach Donald Davis said. "I thought their effort was everything. That was the difference maker for us, to be able to withstand a tremendous football team [that came out and played] the way they did early."
It was an up-and-down night for the host Cardinals, who had one touchdown pass slip through fingers, missed two more catches in the end zone and had a punt return for a touchdown negated by running into the punter. They also turned the ball over on the 2-yard line in the final seconds of the third quarter.
Still, before a standing room only crowd, Calvert Hall (2-0) kept battling against the Indians and their big plays. They put a lot of pressure on Franklin quarterback Jacquez Adams and stayed focused after Indians junior Steven Smothers had an electrifying 93-yard punt return for a touchdown to give the Indians (0-1) a 24-20 lead late in the third quarter.
With 3:55 left, Smith ran for a 7-yard Cardinals touchdown. Kicker Peter Ferrara then put the kickoff in the end zone, keeping it out of Smothers' hands and Thomas soon converted from 29 yards with 2:29 to go.
A year ago, the Cardinals defeated the Indians early in the season and then struggled with injuries the rest of the way to finish 3-9. In their opener last week, they defeated Irvine (Cal.), 47-0.
Friday night was Franklin's season opener and the Indians jumped out early — something Davis feared.
Jacquez Adams hit his twin brother, Jordan, for a 44-yard gain on the first play of the game, but the Indians had to settle for Luis Belmontes' 20-yard field goal.
On their next drive, however, Smothers made a terrific grab on a 39-yard Jacquez Adams pass to the back of the end zone for a 10-0 Franklin lead less than four minutes into the game.
The Cardinals needed just four minutes to come back with their own long scoring pass as quarterback Kenji Bahar hit 6-foot-5 Lawrence Cager with a 49-yard score.
After the Cardinals tied the game at 10 on Ferrara's 26-yard field goal with 5:45 left in the first half, Franklin went 63 yards on 10 plays to score on Jacquez Adams' perfectly-zipped 10 yard pass to Murad Hussain that Hussain caught on his left hip with 1:40 to go before the half. Belmontes added the extra point for a 17-10 lead.
Looking for the tie, the Cardinals drove to the Indians' 12-yard line with 19.3 seconds left in the half. Bahar passed down the middle to the end zone, but Franklin defensive back Juantez McRae, who played at Calvert Hall last season, broke up the play. The ball caromed up in the air and Kiandre Burrell intercepted it on the Indians' 2-yard line.
That momentum didn't carry over, because Calvert Hall sophomore B.J. Watson returned the first kickoff of the second half 85 yards for a touchdown to tie at 17.
"I think that sparked us in the second half," Davis said, "and I think it was a huge factor in our kids being able to rebound and respond in the second half.
Ferrara added a 34-yard field goal to break the tie, but with 6.4 seconds left in the quarter, Smothers answered with a 93-yard punt return, weaving right and then cutting left at midfield with help from blocks by Aman Speed and Hussain.
Then everything fell apart for the Indians, as the Cardinals barely let them move the ball and the series-ending snap carried over the punter's head and out of the end zone with 6:55 left.
Senior quarterback Bahar said the Cardinals were prepared for mistakes on both sides in such a high-calibre game.
"Coach Davis told us for the first six minutes there was going to be mistakes, but we ended up fighting it out," said Bahar, who came off the bench to play most of last year's Franklin game.
"They're a great team. We had to capitalize on their mistakes and we came out with the victory. It was a lot of hype, but we just took it as one game at a time. We knew they had great athletes on the field, but we have great athletes too."
F 10 7 7 0 -- 24
CH 3 7 10 15 -- 35
F—Belmontes 20 FG
F—Smothers 39 pass from Ja.Adams (Belmontes kick)
CH—Cager 49 pass from Bahar (Ferrara kick)
CH—Ferrara 26 FG
F—Hussain 10 pass from Ja.Adams (Belmontes kick)
CH—Watson 85 kickoff ret, (Ferrara kick)
CH—Ferrara 34 FG
F—Smothers 93 punt ret. (Belmontes kick)
CH—Smith 7 run (pass failed)
CH—Thomas 29 run (Ferrara kick)