Every year of covering high school sports has its special moments. Watching teenagers win titles and reach milestones they will treasure all their lives is perhaps the most rewarding part of the job.
It's easy to get caught up in a playoff drive. It's inspiring to see players realize they can accomplish more as a team than a collection of individuals. It's thrilling to watch the truly gifted athlete who can take over a game.
In 2013, there were many of these moments, too many to list, but here are a few of the ones that stood out as I look back on my beats over the last year -- football, girls basketball and girls lacrosse.
MOST IMPRESSIVE PLAYOFF RUN
Franklin football rolls to first state championship
Sometimes a team just gets rolling and there's a sense of destiny about it. Franklin's football team exuded that aura more and more as the playoffs went on this fall.
The season didn't start out with the words Franklin and state champion in the same breath. The Indians lost their season opener to Calvert Hall, 28-14, and after an impressive 42-6 win over Hereford, they fell to Perry Hall, 21-7. Heading into October, they were 2-2, but they would not lose again, building up steam with a 35-18 win over Milford Mill late in October.
Once the playoffs started, they cruised, building confidence as they beat Westminster, 49-14, and then Milford Mill, 49-14.
Quarterback Jacquez Adams had the offense humming, hitting targets such as his twin brother Jordan Adams or Steven Smothers. Darius Hinton led the rushing attack. The offensive and defensive lines proved stalwart and the defense, led by linebacker Bruce Damon, held the opposition to 42 points in four playoff games.
The Indians hit the road to Huntingtown in Calvert County for the state semifinals and routed the Hurricanes, 49-7. Jacquez Adams threw for 337 yards and six touchdowns.
On to states at M&T Bank Stadium and the No. 5 Indians were confident as ever. Jacquez Adams hit Smothers with a 27-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-20 late in the third quarter for a 14-7 lead over Linganore. Smothers just managed to get a foot inbounds as he fell on his back out the side of the end zone and that catch provided the offensive jolt to power a 20-7 victory and put the Class 3A state title plaque in the Reisterstown school's trophy case.
MOST DRAMATIC FINISHES
Marriotts Ridge girls lacrosse needs 4OT to shake archrival Mount Hebron
Thanks goodness for Zoe Stukenberg or I might still be standing on the sideline at Marriotts Ridge watching the No. 8 Mustangs scuffle with No. 7 Mount Hebron. The senior midfielder, now at Maryland, finally ended 13 minutes and 47 seconds of overtime by weaving through the defense to find an opening for the game winner and a 13-12 victory in the battle of Howard County rivals.
Stukenberg also assisted Jenna Kerr's buzzer-beating goal that tied the game at 12 in the first overtime to finish with six goals and three assists. Mount Hebron's Sam Brookhart, who gave Mount Hebron a 12-11 lead with 10.6 seconds left in the first overtime, matched Stukenberg with six goals.
The Mustangs also defeated the Vikings in the regional playoffs, this time 11-8, and went on to win the state Class 3A-2A title, 15-5, over Century. Stukenberg, the All-Metro Player of the Year, had three goals and six assists in the title game.
Douglass football slips by Edmondson in 2OT for Class 1A South regional title
The No. 14 Mighty Ducks came within about six inches of possible elimination from the playoffs in their regional championship game against Baltimore City rival Edmondson. In the second overtime, Edmondson went first and quarterback Daniel Williams made it inside the 1-yard line, but Douglass's Donyae Moody forced a fumble and the Ducks recovered.
In a game that featured 11 turnovers, Douglass made the most of that one, moving 10 yards for the score thanks in part to a late hit called against the Red Storm for plowing down Ducks quarterback Camron West. West then handed off to Da'Quan Alexander for the game-winning touchdown and a 20-14 victory that sent the Ducks (13-1) to the state tournament for the first time in school history.
MOST DOMINATING TEAM
No. 1 McDonogh girls lacrosse wins 91st straight game, fourth straight national title
Few teams in any sport can come close to the ride the McDonogh's girls lacrosse program currently enjoys. The Eagles have won 91 straight games, five straight IAAM A Conference titles and four straight national No. 1 rankings.
Not all of the Eagles wins were overwhelming last spring. They won eight times by six goals or less and had to rally from four goals down to beat St. Paul's, 11-8, in the A Conference final. Rebuilding from significant graduation turnover, they came from behind to win their first two games -- 12-6 over Vero Beach, Fla., and 11-8 over Milton, Ga. -- at Vero Beach. They also had to rally for a 10-7 win over Century late in the season.
Still, coach Chris Robinson's Eagles have dominated the opposition as a whole for so long, some opponents say they step on the field with a lead just from the intimidation factor. Their ability to win the close games in some ways makes them even more dominant.
In April, the Eagles (22-0) defeated Canandaigua, N.Y., 15-5. That was the last team to beat McDonogh, 12-11, on April 22, 2009. The Eagles need 13 wins to break the record of 103 straight girls lacrosse wins set by Loch Raven and tied by Mount Hebron.
MOST DOMINATING PERFORMANCE
No. 1 McDonogh football rips Gilman, 37-6
The longer it went on, the more impossible it seemed. We all knew McDonogh was good, but after a couple hours of tearing No. 2 Gilman apart, the Eagles showed us just how good.
The offensive line handled Gilman's defensive line, Eagles linebackers Wyatt Cook and Connor Young and defensive back Josh Woods wreaked havoc on the Greyhounds offense and it was 14-0 less than eight minutes into the game.
The Eagles offensive line -- Jared Cohen, Ryan Ford, Ellis McKennie, Joey Fiorino, Chase Kirol and Cook -- earns the most dominating unit within a dominating performance nod for its ability to let the rushing game flow almost at will as Syl Brown ran for two touchdowns and Alex Hurdle and Kareem Montgomery ran for one each.
I couldn't say it better than Hurdle did: "Our offensive linemen showed that they're the best in the league, no questions asked. Those guys won us [the McDonogh game] and won us all of our games this season. No doubt, they're the best line ever in McDonogh history -- biggest, strongest, work the hardest, most athletic, everything."
The line plowed the way for 36.2 points per game which fueled an 11-0 season, the MIAA A Conference championship and a No. 49 national ranking in the Student Sports FAB 50.
Oh and of course, they won the 98th annual meeting with Gilman, a win that not only brought bragging rights in the rivalry but clinched the A Conference championship.
BIGGEST RISKS THAT PAID OFF
St. Frances football jumps to the A Conference
St. Frances' football program left more than a few folks shaking their heads when school officials announced their intention to move from the MIAA C Conference to the A Conference. Sure the Panthers were too good for the C Conference after winning two straight titles, the 2012 crown by an average of 35 points. But the A Conference?
While they didn't exactly "shock the world" as they had hoped, the Panthers finished a more-than-respectable 3-3 to land fourth in the seven-team A Conference. They fell to No. 1 McDonogh, 28-6; No. Gilman, 35-21; and No. 4 Archbishop Spalding, 35-34. Overall, they finished 5-6 against a loaded non-conference schedule that included DeMatha, Good Counsel, Friendship Collegiate and Eastern Christian.
Panthers coach Messay Hailemariam wanted to give his players better competition, not only to prove they could win at a higher level but to help get the Panthers more attention from college coaches wary of recruiting players who don't play against top-notch competition. He succeeded on both counts.
Franklin football goes for it on fourth-and-20 in the state final
Franklin coach Anthony Burgos looked like a genius opting to go for it on fourth-and-20 late in the third quarter of the Class 3A state final tied at 7-7. Jacquez Adams hit Steven Smothers with a 27-yard touchdown pass and the rest, as they say, is history. (See Most Impressive Playoff Run above.)
MOST IMPRESSIVE DEBUT
Aberdeen freshman Stephanie Jones picks up slack after sister Brionna tears ACL
When Stephanie Jones arrived on the Aberdeen girls basketball team last winter, just about everyone knew they were in for a treat watching the exceptionally-talented 6-foot-1 freshman. It wasn't until January -- when her sister Brionna tore an ACL and was sidelined for the season -- that Stephanie really asserted herself.
Able to post up, run the floor, shoot the 3, excel on defense -- you name it, the All-Metro freshman did it. She scored 33 points and had 21 rebounds in the regional championship win over City and averaged 19.4 points in the playoffs as the No. 2 Eagles won their second straight Class 3A state title. Stephanie led the Eagles in scoring with 17.3 points and in rebounding with 9.2.
Losing Brionna, the All-Metro Player of the Year as a junior, was a huge blow to the Eagles, because at 6 foot 3, she simply dominated the opposition. However, with Stephanie and senior Jimmia McCluskey leading the way, the Eagles reinvented themselves as a running team and after a brief adjustment period, they took off.
BIGGEST COACHING MILESTONES
North Harford girls basketball coach Lin James retires with 608 career victories
Lin James always wanted to keep a low profile even as she rose to the top of the Baltimore area's all-time list of girls basketball coaching victories. She was interested in teaching her players, not accepting coaching accolades.
When she won her 600th game in December 2012, she did so with as little fanfare as possible, although she was presented with a banner for the Hawks' gym, a white rose from each player and a white T-shirt with "600 wins" in green letters.
She told Randy McRoberts of The Aegis: "I'm relieved to get this [win], so we can move on to playing basketball. I'm not a fan of all this, but I appreciate everything."
In 2004, she tried to keep her impending 500th career win a secret, but a couple weeks before she got it, she was driving to work and noticed this on the marquee in front of school: "When will Mrs. James get 500?"
James is more than 100 wins ahead of her friend Linda Kilpatrick, the Southern coach who ranks second with 494 wins.
When the time came for James to retire last summer after 48 years and a 608-229 record, she wanted it kept under wraps. She didn't tell many people. She just faded away from coaching the sport she loves and once played at Tennessee. Now, she'll spend plenty of time watching it -- especially her granddaughter Kayla's games.
George Petrides wins 250th career football game
City coach George Petrides never advertised his approaching milestone either. Another coach who is a teacher at heart and just enjoys working with teenagers, Petrides won his 250th game with a 20-14 overtime win at Mervo. His players had no idea.
Knights quarterback Troy Robinson was flabbergasted when told of the milestone, but he recovered in time to sum it up perfectly after the Mervo win: "He's an excellent coach. He's been coaching at City for a long time and he's been winning for a long time and today just showed the type of coach he is and the type of team he creates."
Petrides took over at City in 1975 and he now has 252 wins, 138 losses and one tie. That puts him No. 2 behind Good Counsel coach Bob Milloy and his 382 wins on the list of winningest active coaches in Maryland.
"It means I've been here a long time, first of all," said Petrides with a laugh after the Mervo win. "I've appreciated every moment of it. I have loved coaching football at City College and working with these young men. You couldn't ask for a better life."
MOST PROMISING YOUNGSTERS
Sophomores assert themselves
Stephanie Jones wasn't the only young player to impress during 2013. She may have been the youngest, but she had a lot of company from players just a year older. Sophomores had a big impact in football and girls basketball. Three earned first-team All-Metro status in each sport, something that likely never happened before.
In football, Franklin wide receiver-return man Steven Smothers made big play after big play and earned comparisons to former Dunbar star Tavon Austin for his speed and elusive moves. Boys' Latin punter Dominic Maggio averaged 44.7 yards with a 36.5 net and he had a good teacher -- his dad Kirk Maggio who kicked at UCLA. Gilman defensive tackle Ellison Jordan destroyed offenses with 50 tackles and 11 sacks and always drew double coverage to try to contain him.
In basketball, Milford Mill guard Dionna White averaged 17.8 points and 4.4 assists but her basketball IQ was already through the roof, leaving you shaking your head at her perfect decision-making especially with the game in the balance. Annapolis Area Christian guard Taylor Murray had top Division I coaches hot on her trail as a freshman and averaged 21 points last season before earning a spot on the U.S. U16 national team. McDonogh point guard Danielle Edwards is the consummate ball handler, making the Eagles nearly impossible to press while also contributing as much offense as needed.
Three more sophomores also made the 2012-2013 All-Metro girls basketball second team -- Roland Park's Lindsey Edwards, Patterson Mill's Qalea Ismail and McDonogh's Dajah Logan. Like their first-team classmates, they continue to impress as juniors this winter.
In lacrosse, the senior class dominated, so no sophomores made first-team All-Metro, but three -- Maryvale's Miranda Ibello, Century's Kristen Yanchoris and McDonogh's Elizabeth George -- made second team.
I can't wait to see what they -- and all of the other varsity athletes -- accomplish in 2014. The highlight reels should be fabulous.
Happy New Year!