To reach the state semifinals a year ago, Wilde Lake's football team had to beat two of its toughest Howard County rivals, Atholton and River Hill, a second time. The Wildecats prevailed and went on to win the state Class 3A title, but coach Mike Harrison said it's never easy to face local rival in the playoffs.
"Having done this for a couple of years, it's a very unenviable position as a coach," Harrison said, "because if you're on the back end of it and something goes wrong early in the [playoff] game, doubt creeps into the kids' heads. And if you won the first time, you don't want those kids to go in too overconfident. Either side of that coin, it's a tricky situation."
This week, a handful of football coaches around the Baltimore area wrestled with the dynamic of a playoff rematch as they prepared to face one of their league rivals in a championship game Friday.
No. 4 Atholton and No. 9 River Hill meet for the Class 3A East regional championship and Harford County rivals North Harford and No. 12 Aberdeen meet for the Class 3A North regional title. Both winners advance to the state semifinals.
In the MIAA, all three conference finals, of course, feature rematches — No. 1 Gilman vs. No. 2 Calvert Hall in the first-ever A Conference title game, Annapolis Area Christian vs. Boys' Latin in the B Conference and Severn vs. St. Frances in the C Conference.
The second time around requires preparation that in most ways mirrors getting ready for the regular-season game, coaches said, but it also presents some unique challenges. They can't toss the original playbook, but they don't want to be predictable either.
"All the teams in our league are very familiar with one another," said Gilman coach Biff Poggi, whose team went unbeaten against A Conference foes this fall, "but this gives you a chance to maybe do something a little differently than you might have done. I think rematches are hard. I think that's why you have to try to be different. You have to do something different — not a lot, but enough."
Atholton coach Kyle Schmitt agreed, and he has more rematch experience than Poggi, because the A Conference has not had a playoff until this fall. Last year, Schmitt's Raiders beat Wilde Lake during the regular season but lost the rematch. The Raiders won this season's first meeting with River Hill, 14-0.
"We're running what we've been working on since Aug. 30," Schmitt said. "Just because you've seen a team before doesn't mean you can dump your offense and defense. You throw a few wrinkles in — a new formation, a new blitz, or a new front or something. We've worked too hard with these kids for three months to throw everything out the window."
Preparing the players psychologically may be tougher than tweaking the Xs and Os of the game plan, especially if you won big or lost big the first time around.
Aberdeen coach Johnny Brooks finds plenty of motivation for his players in the mistakes made during their 38-12 loss to North Harford on Sept. 30. His approach certainly differs from that of Hawks coach Ken Brinkman, who has to watch out for overconfidence.
"I think it depends on how you lost or won during the regular season," Brooks said. "We feel we didn't play up to our capabilities, so we're really positive going into this one. We had some turnovers and a couple blocked punts, and we feel they haven't seen our best. If you feel you've played your best and lost, you might not have the same mind set."
While Brooks has faced a Harford County rival before in the playoffs — Joppatowne several times while he coached at Havre de Grace — Brinkman has not.
"You never like playing a team twice," Brinkman said. "I think you see it in every sport, the second time you play it, things are different. With the mental part, just fighting through that 'How did we play [the first time]? What did we do? What's the other team going to do to try to stop us? What are we going to do to stop them? What are the kids thinking?' [With] a bunch of teenagers, you never know what's in their heads. You're trying to convince them that that game was seven weeks ago and now we need to talk about the playoffs."
Brinkman and other coaches whose teams won their first meetings preach to their players that a lot can change in a few weeks. That's also true when you come close the first time around, as Calvert Hall did in an Oct. 7 loss to Gilman, 28-21, on Cyrus Jones' 97-yard punt return with three minutes to go.
"Teams mature during the course of the season," Cardinals coach Donald Davis said. "One of the things you have to look at is how have they evolved from the first time you saw them and how have you evolved because a lot of things come into play. You have back-up kids who rise a little bit. Sometimes you have injuries that impact the dynamic, so we have to take all those things into account, but at the same time we are who we are and they are who they are."
Schmitt, whose team's only loss this season came by forfeit, knows River Hill is one of those teams that could look quite different the second time around. The Hawks opened the season 2-2 while struggling with injuries, especially one to top running back Aaron Wells, who missed the Atholton game. They haven't lost since.
Annapolis Area Christian coach Ken Lucas is trying to instill a similar outlook in his players, because the Eagles face this year's poster team for comebacks, Boys' Latin. The Lakers are the only team with a losing record still going in the playoffs, but they have won three straight and upset Archbishop Curley in the semifinals.
"Like all athletics, football is a game of momentum," Lucas said, "and certainly [the Lakers] are riding that momentum wave right now. They've played some very good ball games the second half of the season, and as the old saying goes, "It's not how you start, it's how you finish."