Brandon Willis wanted his Gilman football team to set the tone early in Sunday’s playoff game against Calvert Hall. He didn’t really expect it to come on the opening play of the game.
The senior ran the opening kickoff back 95 yards for a touchdown to give the No. 13 Greyhounds an early lead they would never relinquish in a 42-24 victory over the No. 4 Cardinals in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference semifinals at CCBC-Essex.
“I had guys blocking for me,” Willis said. “I love that. We all play for each other. We’ve all got each other’s backs. I caught the ball and I saw Brandon [Madison] turn up field and I was like,’ All right, when he hits that block, I’m gone.’ When I hit that hole, I was ready to go to the end zone.
The win — with two touchdowns each by running back Brandon Madison and quarterback Purnell Hill — sends the Greyhounds (5-6) into the title game against heavily-favored No. 1 St. Frances, a 49-7 winner over No. 7 McDonogh in Sunday’s other semifinal. The title game kicks off next Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at Johns Hopkins Homewood Field.
The defending champion and top-seeded Panthers (11-0) have emerged as a national power, ranked No. 13 in USA Today’s Super 25, under coaches Biff Poggi and Henry Russell and much of the staff that built Gilman into the top MIAA A Conference power with 13 championships before they departed after the 2015 season. The second-seeded Greyhounds finished 1-5 last season, but coach Tim Holley has turned them into a late-season force as they emerged from a five-way tie for second place in the conference to reach the title game.
Willis wasn’t the only one making big plays for the Greyhounds as Madison, who ran 25 times for 175 yards, scored on a 68-yard run that made the score 21-7 early in the second quarter. Safety Piper Bond, who also caught a touchdown pass, had two interceptions in the first 17 minutes.
Willis and Khari Jones also had interceptions while defensive end Thomas Booker led the Greyhounds’ constant pressure on Calvert Hall quarterback Mike Campbell, who ran for one touchdown and threw for two late in the game.
The Greyhounds beat the Cardinals (6-5) during the regular season, 35-28, when Jones scored on the play after a blocked punt late in the game. This time, they built a 28-7 lead when Madison scored on the 68-yard run and then, after Bond’s second interception, ran in a 3-yard score with about seven minutes left in the first half.
“We kept building that confidence,” Bond said. “All year, nobody believed in us. We played with that chip on our shoulder. We played with it last week [in the win over McDonogh that secured a playoff berth], the week before and the week before that. We came out here today, we thought they didn’t respect us and we showed them what’s up.”
The wins over McDonogh last week and then Calvert Hall are the first back-to-back wins for the Greyhounds in this up-and-down season. St. Frances, however, dealt them their worst loss, 50-0, on Oct. 13.
Big plays also sparked the Panthers’ victory, especially an 82-yard punt return by Kwincy Hall that set up a touchdown late in the first half. That play gave the Panthers the momentum to break open a close game.
After Hall’s return to the Eagles’ 8-yard line, quarterback Jalon Jones ran the ball in on the next play to boost the Panthers’ lead to 21-7, which they carried into halftime. After the break, McDonogh had possession first, but Jordan Toles picked off a pass by quarterback Dejuan Ellis — one of three interceptions he threw in the game — that led to a 10-yard touchdown by Joachim Bangda.
Hall’s punt return set off a run of 35 straight St. Frances points.
“It was definitely a game-changing moment for us,” said Hall, a senior. “Coach Biff had told me if it goes behind me, past the 10, don’t go for it, but the ball was actually at the 10. I could have called fair catch. It was a gamble for me, but I knew the way that our team was built and the way coach Bill McGregor set up the block perfectly for us, so I knew that was going to be a big return for us.”
McDonogh (6-5) stayed in the game early with two first-quarter drives starting in St. Frances territory. After Bangda gave the Panthers a 7-0 lead less than three minutes into the game with an 11-yard run, the teams traded possessions before McDonogh tied it on a 1-yard run by Ellis with 4:14 left in the quarter. The senior quarterback set up the touchdown run with a long pass to Dane Swanson, who made a lunging grab for a 44-yard gain.
After that, not a lot went right for the Eagles, who lost the regular-season game, 28-0. They never again reached the red zone. Panthers Shane Lee and Terrell Smith intercepted passes and St. Frances rolled to the win in the first A Conference playoff game in five years.
“Early, we tried to do some trick plays and try to get some energy going,” McDonogh coach Dom Damico said, “and we did for almost half of the football game. Then it just wears out. The better team won. Obviously, they’re very physical and tough and they’re skilled and we don’t have the team. I don’t think there’s a team around here that has the team to compete with them for four quarters. They’re just so deep and so talented.”
Panthers junior quarterback Jalon Jones ran for three touchdowns and 91 yards and passed for another touchdown for the Panthers, going 5-for-7 for 95 yards. Bangda ran 13 times for 41 yards and three touchdowns.
MIAA A CONFERENCE SEMFINALS
1 St. Frances 49, 7 McDonogh 7
M 7 0 0 0 — 7
SF 7 14 21 7 — 49
SF — Bangda 11 run (Larson kick)
M — Ellis 1 run (Beattie kick)
SF — Bangda 2 run (Larson kick)
SF — Jones 8 run (Larson kick)
SF — Bangda 10 run (Larson kick)
SF — Jones 1 run (Larson kick)
SF — Bearns 11 pass from Jones (Larson kick)
SF — Williams 9 run (Larson kick)
13 Gilman 42, 4 Calvert Hall 24
CH 0 7 17 7 — 24
G 14 14 7 7 — 42
G — Willis 95 kick ret. (Godine kick)
G — Bond 14 pass from Hill (Godine kick)
CH — M. Campbell 6 run (Reynolds kick)
G — Madison 68 run (Godine kick)
G — Madison 3 run (Godine kick)
CH — Reynolds 31 FG
G — K.Jones 1 run (Godine kick)
CH — Robinson 13 pass from M.Campbell (Reynolds kick)
G — Hill 26 run (Godine kick)
CH — Herbert 29 pass from M.Campbell (Reynolds kick)