River Hill's season didn't start off that well at 2-2, but it certainly ended well -- with a 10-game winning streak culminating in the state Class 3A football championship Saturday night.
In winning their third state title, 41-13 over Thomas Johnson at M&T Bank Stadium, the No. 5 Hawks relied on the two things that had gotten them this far, their running game and a stingy defense -- plus more than a little help from the Patriots.
Thomas Johnson turned the ball over nine times in the game and twice on their first three plays. Hawks cornerback Randall Lawson had two interceptions and caught a fumble in the air.
"They did help us a lot with the turnovers," Lawson said with a grin, "but we knew who their go-to-guys were, and when I got the interception on [a pass intended for Nate Hairston with 1:05 to go in the first half] in the end zone, that was probably the biggest one, but I think as the game progressed and we started putting more points up, it just took the life out of them."
The Hawks (12-2) scored 34 unanswered points after the Patriots (10-4) tied the game at 7 on Brandon Berney's 1-yard run three seconds into the second quarter. Aaron Wells and Raamah Vaughn scored twice each and Evan Griffin once in the run that boosted the Hawks' lead to 41-7 with 4:49 remaining in the game.
Every touchdown was scored on the ground behind a stellar performance from the offensive line as Wells, the senior running back who was sidelined with an injury for both of the Hawks' losses, led the way with 25 carries for 161 yards and two touchdowns. Senior quarterback Vaughn ran 17 times for 101 yards and three touchdowns.
Midway through the first quarter, Vaughn got the Hawks on the board first with a 5-yard run after the Patriots' second turnover. Berney tied it on the 15th play of a 4 1/2-minute drive.
On the Hawks' next possession, Danny Medina picked off Vaughn's pass, but as he returned it, he lost the ball and Lawson snared it out of the air. The Hawks couldn't convert that turnover, but Wells scored on a 1-yard run on the next possession.
The Patriots moved the ball well on their next drive, but that's when Lawson made his end-zone pick just before the half.
The Hawks started to run away with it in the second half when Wells raced 63 yards for a touchdown for a 20-7 lead 1:02 into the third quarter.
"They were game changers," Wells said of Lawson's first pick and his long touchdown run. "When [Medina] got the interception, I feel like everybody on the sideline's heads went down. When the ball popped out, it was crazy and Randall made a great play. And then when I hit the run, it was just icing for the cake. We got their head down some more and kept pounding and pounding."
River Hill ran for 311 yards and accumulated 372 yards of total offense. The Patriots had 313 yards of total offense, but turnovers ended far too many of their drives.
Lawson's second pick, late in the third quarter, set the Hawks up on Thomas Johnson's 14-yard line, resulting in Vaughn's 2-yard touchdown run five plays later for a 27-7 lead.
The Patriots fumbled on their next possession, and Logan Kirby recovered on the Thomas Johnson 12-yard line. It took just one play for Griffin to reach the end zone for a 34-7 River Hill lead five seconds into the fourth quarter. Justin Arn's interception led to an 11-yard scoring run by Vaughn, boosting the lead to 41-7 with 4:49 to go.
This was the first Class 3A title for the Hawks, who won Class 2A crowns in 2007 and 2008.
"It never gets old," Hawks coach Brian Van Deusen said, "but it might be the most special one where we came from at 2-2. We were pretty down at that point after that Hammond [loss], but we rattled off 10 wins in a row. It was special. This is a great group of guys."
TJ 0 7 0 6 — 13
RH 7 7 13 14 — 41
RH—Vaughn 8 run (Grove kick)
TJ—Berney 1 run (McLister kick)
RH—Wells 1 run (Grove kick)
RH—Wells 63 run (kick failed)
RH—Vaughn 2 run (Grove kick)
RH—Griffin 12 run (Grove kick)
RH—Vaughn 11 run (Grove kick)
TJ—Berney 7 run (pass failed)