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Howard football cruises past Paint Branch, 39-7, for 4A North region championship

Howard football highlights from their 4A North region championship game victory against Paint Branch Nov. 21.

For Howard, it was another steady dose of running back Najee Savage and smothering defense on Friday night.

On the big stage in the 4A North regional championship game, the Lions clicked on all cylinders in a dominating 39-7 victory over visiting Paint Branch.

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"It feels great, the guys did a great job tonight," Howard coach Bruce Strunk said. "Our kids came to play."

The region title marks the first for Howard (12-0) as a football program since 1999, where the team lost to Edmondson in the 2A state semifinals.

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It's also the first 4A regional football title for any team in Howard County history.

On Friday, Paint Branch recovered an onside kick to start the game, but two plays later the Lions forced a fumble and recovered. Howard proceeded to drive 61 yards and take a 7-0 lead when Kevin Sheahin found Christian Dagan in the left corner of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown.

After forcing the Panthers to punt, Savage carried his team down field. After a 22-yard rush, he broke through the left side and up the left sideline 52-yards for a touchdown to give his team a 14-0 lead with 11:49 left in the second quarter.

"Najee's been running hard all year," Strunk said. "He's been an offensive dynamo for us all year."

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Howard went up 20-0 before halftime when Sheahin found Dylan Perez in the middle of the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown on 4th and 17.

Three plays into the second half Vanden Vale intercepted a pass in the middle of the field to set up the offense at the Panthers' 20 yard line.

Four straight runs from Savage, including a 5-yard touchdown rush, gave the Lions a 27-0 lead.

"We were trying to take what they gave us," Strunk said. "We were trying to keep them off balance."

Later in the third quarter, Shane Kieta picked up a fumble in the Paint Branch backfield and returned it 46 yards for another score, giving Howard a 33-0 lead.

The Panthers (9-3) scored a touchdown late in the third quarter to make it 33-7, but the Lions added another score when Malik Anderson caught a short pass to the left and took it 48 yards for a touchdown.

Savage finished with 36 rushes for 160 yards and two touchdowns, while Sheahin completed 13 of 18 passes for 169 yards and three touchdowns.

Defensively, Howard dominated as they had all season long. The Lions allowed only 156 total yards, including negative 27 yards rushing, to the Panthers high-powered offense. Saif Bryant had four of the teams' eight sacks.

"Our defense really bought into our game plan," Strunk said. "We tried to confuse them a little bit and it worked."

With the win, Howard got some revenge several decades in the making. The Lions beat Paint Branch for their only state title in 1974, but the Panthers won in a rematch in 1975. It was the last time the Lions have been in a state title game in football.

Sheahin said this win is a culmination of four years of playing together. As teammates on JV, Sheahin and Savage led the Lions to an undefeated season. Now they are trying to stay perfect on a much bigger stage.

Howard doesn't know which team they will face in the state semifinals, but Strunk doesn't care.

"I'm just happy. Right now there are a lot of quality opponents out there," Strunk said. "We just have to get ready for whoever we play."

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