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Howard County football teams prepare for 2019 season with new playoff format

Howard head coach Ross Hannon, pictured here in a Class 4A state playoff game against Sherwood in 2017, is one of several Howard County football coaches who are in favor of the MPSSAA's playoff format changes.
Howard head coach Ross Hannon, pictured here in a Class 4A state playoff game against Sherwood in 2017, is one of several Howard County football coaches who are in favor of the MPSSAA's playoff format changes. (Steve Ruark / For Baltimore Sun Media Group)

A handful of Howard County football teams having a realistic shot to win the county championship would usually be the main storyline heading into the season.

The top two teams in the county from last season — Howard and Glenelg — are losing almost every starter from last year’s squads, while River Hill and Long Reach are returning several significant players from their solid teams.

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This season, however, the changes by the MPSSAA that will fundamentally alter scheduling in Howard County, the playoff format and the crowning of the county champion is what every coach is talking about.

Overall, local coaches are excited for the changes that were announced by the MPSSAA Board of Control in late April. The new format shortens the regular season from 10 to nine games, doubles the amount of playoff teams and introduces re-seeding midway through the playoffs.

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“This has been a long time in the making,” said Wilde Lake head coach Brian Henderson. “To finally see it happen, it’s a great opportunity. It’s really cool to see it. So now we’ll have a new opportunity to have more teams in the playoffs. In the state of Maryland, there have been some really good teams that have been left out of the playoffs in the past. This is a way to ensure all the best teams are in the playoffs.”

What double the amount of playoff teams does is incentivize playing a more difficult non-county schedule, the coaches said. In conjunction with that change, Howard County teams are no longer playing a 10-game regular season schedule against only county teams, which has allowed for the top teams to schedule difficult games.

“I’ve been pushing for Howard County to play out of county for a while now,” said Long Reach head coach Jamie Willis. “Only playing in house, you don’t know how good you really are.”

Howard is playing six county games with non-county games against top programs South Hagerstown, Loyola Blakefield and Sherwood.

“It’s almost the SEC (Southeastern Conference) of high school football,” Howard head coach Ross Hannon said. “We are playing the absolute best in these other counties. It’s a whole new challenge.”

Glenelg, which lost in the 2A state final last season, is also playing only six county games, with its other three games coming against Urbana, Westminster and Smyrna, one of the top teams in Delaware.

“You can now afford to go out and schedule some tough competition and not run the risk of maybe losing a game and getting bumped from the playoffs,” Gladiators coach Tim Cullen said. “We know every single week will be a battle this year.”

The coaches are also happy about re-seeding during the playoffs. Each region is still separated into two sections, but under the new format the winner of each section — now called “Region I” and “Region II” — advances to the state quarterfinals, which will be re-seeded 1-8 based on regular season win percentage.

The old format pitted section champions from the same region against one another in a region championship to advance to the state semifinal round. The potential is now there for two teams in the county to play in a state final.

River Hill's Beau Brade makes a fingertip reception against Glenelg during a regular season game in 2018.
River Hill's Beau Brade makes a fingertip reception against Glenelg during a regular season game in 2018. (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

“The only downside to re-seeding is there’s not a true region champion, but that’s a small sacrifice,” Cullen said. “It makes it so that you’ll see more quality playoff games all the way through.”

The way the county champion is crowned will also be different this season. The title will be given to the team with the best winning percentage, as long as it played more than six county games. This season, every team is playing at least six county games except Centennial, who opted for an easier schedule for its rebuilding program. Some teams, like River Hill and Reservoir, are playing every game in county, while others, like Hammond, Glenelg and Howard, are only playing six games against county foes.

Despite the differing schedules and games played, the county coaches still believe the county championship will have significance.

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“Everyone wants to win the county, because that’s bragging rights at home,” Willis said. “If you don’t take care of your county first, it’s tough to think you’ll be a state champ-caliber team. Even though we don’t play everyone in the county, you still need to be good enough to win the county championship to win the state championship.”

Entering the season, most coaches in the county agree that Howard and Glenelg have earned the right to be considered the two top teams in the county, with River Hill and Long Reach as teams that will compete for a county title with solid players returning.

The Lions and Gladiators will battle the inevitable in high school sports — graduation.

Howard returns one starter on offense and only two on defense, and Hannon is tasked with replacing star running back Devin Dawkins. Hannon said the Lions’ young players are “resilient” and that he’s excited to see them step up in their new roles.

Hannon said a key for the Lions is first-year starting quarterback sophomore Connor Hawkins.

“With a new quarterback, we are trying to get him up to speed,” Hannon said. “He has to know the entire offense, instead of just the responsibilities of one position.”

The Gladiators return five of 22 starters from last season’s 13-1 team and have Cullen taking over as head coach for Butch Schaffer.

For the second time in three years, Howard County rushing king Glenelg senior running back Wande Owens is the football Offensive Player of the Year.

“These jobs don’t typically open up. I’m grateful to get this opportunity,” said Cullen, who was an assistant at Glenelg for the past nine years. “I’m hoping to keep the train on the tracks. I’ll put my stamp on some little things, but I’m definitely of the mindset that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Glenelg brings back All-County players in senior tight end Drew Sotka, senior offensive lineman Kevin Pak, junior defensive back Trisden Bovello and senior kicker Chris Retzbach. Sotka led the team with 160 yards receiving and four touchdowns on just six receptions in 2018.

The biggest departure for any team in the county is Glenelg losing running back Wande Owens, who ran for 2,687 yards and 40 touchdowns last year and is now a freshman at Yale. Owens was the Offensive Player of the Year, while Glenelg linebacker Sam Alsheimer, who is now a freshman at Towson, was the Defensive Player of the Year.

“The philosophy will still be the same,” Cullen said. “We’re going to run the ball and play good defense. We may try to spread some teams out a little bit more. We’ve got some guys outside who are talented, and we’ll be able to spread the ball around a little bit more.”

Glenelg senior Drew Sotka previews what to expect from the Gladiators football team for the 2019 season.

One of the best returning players in the county is River Hill senior Beau Brade, who is one of 12 returning starters for the Hawks. Brade, a University of Maryland commit at defensive back, totaled 126 tackles and two interceptions at safety and 500 total yards and three touchdowns on offense. The Hawks also return All-County linebacker Zach Igwebe, who tallied 61 tackles as a sophomore.

“Defensively, I think we have some really nice defensive players,” said River Hill head coach Brian Van Deusen, who has coached the Hawks to 10 of the last 15 county championships. “We have Beau Brade at safety, Zach Igwebe at inside linebacker, Nick Laumann and some other guys with experience on defense.”

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River Hill running back/safety Beau Brade discusses the Hawks' upcoming season on the first day of practice.

One of River Hill’s biggest losses in 2019 will likely be Long Reach’s best addition. Second-team All-County running back Jordan Perry, who ran for just under 1,000 yards last season for the Hawks, has transferred back to Long Reach, where he played as a freshman and sophomore. The Lightning also add linebacker Kahlil Tiller-Kinard, who transferred from Atholton, and return the most amount of starters of any team in the county with 14.

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“Jordan Perry is an outstanding young man,” said Willis, who is entering his seventh season at the helm. “He adds a speed and agility dimension to our offense. He’s been a part of the program, so he knows what we’re about. He’s a really fast kid, so we can use him some different ways and cause some havoc that way. We’re excited to have him back in our program.”

Among the Lightning’s returnees are junior wideout Chris Martin Jr., senior quarterback Jose Ribalta and sophomore running back Julius Saunders — all of whom were All-County picks last year.

River Hills' Jordan Perry runs against Glenelg in the 2A South regional championship football game at Glenelg.
River Hills' Jordan Perry runs against Glenelg in the 2A South regional championship football game at Glenelg. (Bill Ryan / For Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Several coaches listed Long Reach, which went 7-4 last season, as a team that will compete for the county championship this season.

“Long Reach will be one of the top teams in the county,” said Cullen, whose Gladiators will play the Lightning in the final week of the regular season. “They’ve got some serious weapons. They’re a team to watch out for.”

“What others think about us in the county is awesome, but we’re focused on ourselves,” Willis said. “We really don’t get caught up in how the county feels or thinks. To be mentioned along side Howard, River Hill and Glenelg is unbelievable, but we’re not focused on that.”

On the other side of Columbia at Atholton, the Raiders have a new offensive coordinator and quarterback this season — both of whom are moving up from the junior varsity squad. Sophomore Harrison Feldman will be the Raiders’ signal caller, while his play-caller is Hayden Yerashunas, who coached Atholton’s JV team last year.

“(He) will be one of the top offensive minds in the state of Maryland as a play-caller,” said Atholton head coach Justin Carey of Yerashunas.

Marriotts Ridge will also have a new quarterback this season, as sophomore Casey Pung takes over. The Mustangs look to replace Robinson Davis, who last season was named the team’s MVP, an All-County selection and totaled more than 500 all-purpose yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions and 46 tackles on defense.

Reservoir returns 11 starters, including senior running back Darius Ellerbe, who scored five touchdowns in the Gators’ scrimmage last week. Ellerbe was a first-team All-County selection last season as a defensive back.

Oakland Mills, meanwhile, has the best returning quarterback in the county. Senior Kai Castle, who was a first-team All-County selection last year, threw for a county-high 1,154 yards with 14 touchdowns and ran for 971 yards and 13 scores.

Joining Cullen and Henderson as new head coaches in the county are Will Bell at Hammond and Shawn Frederick at Mt. Hebron.

Henderson, who was the Wildecats’ defensive coordinator for the past four seasons, is taking over for Michael Harrison at Wilde Lake as only the fifth head coach in program history.

Wilde Lake senior linebacker Jarrett Monah talks Wildecats football before the start of the 2019 season.

“I’m very humbled and fortunate to get this opportunity,” Henderson said. “Coach Harrison had done a great job here. I owe him a lot. It was a great opportunity to come on and coach here at this legendary, historic place. To come on and be a part of this tradition and take over as only the school’s fifth head coach is exciting.”

The Wildecats improved from 1-8 in 2017 to 6-4 last season. They return two All-County players in junior wide receiver Amari Hutson and junior running back Allen Ngue.

“We’ve got a really good mix of players coming back,” Henderson said. “Amari Hutson is one of those guys who is going to be special for us on both sides of the ball.”

Hammond wideout/defensive back Loick Amouzou and linebacker/fullback Gabe Coby discussed their excitement for a new season with first-year head coach Will Bell.

Bell, who helped turn around Severna Park’s program in his four-year tenure, hopes to do the same for the Golden Bears, who went 2-8 last season.

Frederick, who most recently was head coach at Hammond, also hopes to rebuild Mt. Hebron’s program, which went 2-8 last year. The Vikings haven’t gone .500 in a season since 2012 and have won only six games in the last four seasons.

Lastly, Centennial hopes to win its first game since Sept. 2, 2016. The Eagles couldn’t field a team in 2017 and were winless last season. With a difficult schedule against county opponents, the Eagles didn’t score a point all season.

Senior quarterback Malik Chester talks Centennial football ahead of the 2019 season.

This year, though, head coach Billy Martin said the Eagles started the preseason with 25 more players than last season.

With the format changes, Martin said it was a good time to ease up the Eagles’ schedule. Centennial only plays two county opponents this season — Mt. Hebron and Hammond.

“We definitely got beat up pretty good last year. I know that didn’t sit well with the kids in the school and on the team,” Martin said. “I got the vibe from the kids that they wouldn’t want to go through that again. We just felt that if we could get a more favorable schedule, that it would help us keep the kids around, and if we could have more success on the field, then we could get more kids in the program.”

Here’s a closer look at the 12 local programs:

Atholton

2018 record: 2-8

Coach: Justin Carey

Returning offensive starters: 4; Returning defensive starters: 6

Offensive scheme: Two-back, run-oriented, play-action; Defensive scheme: 3-4

Top offensive players: Seniors Chris Bookter (WR), Jon Watkins (RB), Matthew Thomas (OL), Dawood Abdul-Malik (C) and Jeremiah Griffiths (RB).

Top defensive players: Seniors Jermore Kent (LB/DE/TE), Dinari Spears (CB), Jordan Fore (LB) and Bryce Jamison (CB); junior Nyukechen Agbor-Baiyee (LB).

Coach’s corner: “We lost five games by eight (points) or less last year. When we clean up mistakes, we will be a tough team. … We expect to be in the top four consistently. (It’s) just a matter of time.” — head coach Justin Carey.

Centennial

2018 record: 0-10

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Coach: Billy Martin

Returning offensive starters: 4; Returning defensive starters: 5

Offensive scheme: Spread; Defensive scheme: 4-2-5

Top offensive players: Seniors Anthony Matthews (WR/DB) and Malik Chester (QB); junior Kevin Hammond (OL).

Top defensive players: Seniors David Ledbetter (DE/LB) and Anthony Matthews (WR/DB); junior Dylan Watson (LB).

Coach’s corner: “We’re excited for another season. We’ve got a whole new staff here with eight new assistants. Jack Kinloch, who was the head coach at Mt. Hebron last year, is now calling the offense and many of his (former) assistants at Hebron are now here. Before I started at Centennial, I was an assistant over there, and I’m excited to have those coaches here with me.” — head coach Billy Martin.

Glenelg senior linebacker Sam Alsheimer returned to the field this season after a series of leg surgeries to earn the 2018 Howard County Times Defensive Player of the Year award.

Glenelg

2018 record: 10-0, 13-1; 2A state finalists

Coach: Tim Cullen

Returning offensive starters: 2; Returning defensive starters: 4

Offensive scheme: Hybrid Ron Hanson Scorched Earth Attack; Defensive scheme: 4-2-5

Top offensive players: Seniors Kyle Dry (RB), Drew Sotka (TE/LB) and Mason Davis (QB); juniors Robbie Tolbert (WR) and Kevin Pak (C).

Top defensive players: Seniors Drew Sotka (LB/TE) and Kyle Duncan (LB); juniors Trisden Bovello (DB), Niko Garbis (LB) and Kevin Doughty (DE).

Coach’s corner: “We will rely on our attention to detail, discipline and work ethic to compete in every game we play. We will play for each other and compete with class.” — head coach Tim Cullen.

Hammond

2018 record: 2-8

Coach: Will Bell

Returning offensive starters: 4; Returning defensive starters: 5

Offensive scheme: Spread; Defensive scheme: 3-4

Top offensive players: Seniors Loick Amouzou (WR/DB), Khaleb Mair (WR/DB) and Sam Mercedes (ATH).

Top defensive players: Seniors Noah Jackson (DL), Jahni Lawrence (DB), Micah Nowlin (DB) and DeLayfette Burnside (LB).

Coach’s corner: “Our football team is built around a tough group of young men and strong leaders who would do anything for each other. We worked hard this offseason to build a culture and environment for sustained success. The goal is for our success to start now and pave the way for future years. We have strong leadership throughout our programs beginning with our seniors and juniors. I would also put our coaching staff up against anyone at the state level.” — head coach Will Bell.

Howard

2018 record: 9-1, 9-2; 4A North region semifinalists

Coach: Ross Hannon

Returning offensive starters: 1; Returning defensive starters: 2

Offensive scheme: Spread; Defensive scheme: 4-2-5

Top offensive players: Seniors Jordan Gregory (WR) and Kyle Perry (OL); junior Alex Rebaza (RB); sophomore Connor Hawkins (QB).

Top defensive players: Seniors Ethan Mitchell (DB) and Gabe Gray (DL); juniors Carson Robinson (DB) and Coby Robinson (DB); sophomore Dylan Aguilera (LB).

Coach’s corner: “Our kids have bought into believing in us and the process. We lost a lot of seniors last year to graduation, and obviously replacing (running back) Devin Dawkins isn’t an easy thing to do. But we have a great group of young players. This is their opportunity, and we’re excited for them.” — head coach Ross Hannon.

Long Reach

2018 record: 7-3, 7-4; 3A East region semifinalists

Coach: Jamie Willis

Returning offensive starters: 7; Returning defensive starters: 7

Offensive scheme: Run-focused spread; Defensive scheme: 4-2-5

Top offensive players: Senior Jose Ribalta (QB); junior Chris Martin Jr. (WR); sophomore Julius Saunders (RB).

Top defensive players: Seniors Elijah Saunders (DE), Ryan Cannon (DE) and Isaiah Powell-Major (DB); junior Michael De La Garza (MLB).

Coach’s corner: “This year we have a lot of new faces in the program. However, our goals don’t change. We are focusing on getting better every day. When the season starts, we’re focusing on being 1-0 each week. If we can do that, we will be right in the thick of things for the playoffs.” — head coach Jamie Willis.

Marriotts Ridge

2018 record: 4-6

Coach: Marcus Lewis

Returning offensive starters: 3; Returning defensive starters: 3

Offensive scheme: Delaware Wing-T; Defensive scheme: 3-4

Top offensive players: Seniors Jaylin Moore (WR), Cole Rosenthal (RB), Ryan Reeling (FB) and Dayo Togun (OL).

Top defensive players: Senior Nick Harris (DE); juniors Jack Baxter (DL) and Cole Tran (DB).

Coach’s corner: “We have a very tight-knit group that will be disciplined and competitive. We will look to improve on a weekly basis in hopes of having a very successful season.” — head coach Marcus Lewis.

Mt. Hebron

2018 record: 2-8

Coach: Shawn Frederick

Returning offensive starters: 1; Returning defensive starters: 0

Offensive scheme: Multiple formation; Defensive scheme: 3-4

Top offensive players: Senior Finn Devine (QB); juniors Terry Tun (OL) and Zion Holmes (WR).

Top defensive players: Juniors Brian Jun (LB), Guan Morris (CB) and Sam Mitchell (LB).

Coach’s corner: “I am very excited to be (Mt. Hebron’s) new head coach. The community has been supportive during my transition, and the student-athletes, along with the administration and staff, have bought into the process to build a competitive and winning program. We had a productive preseason camp learning about each other and installing new schemes and techniques for the season.” — head coach Shawn Frederick.

Oakland Mills

2018 record: 7-3, 7-4; 2A South region semifinalists

Coach: Tom Browne

Returning offensive starters: 3; Returning defensive starters: 6

Offensive scheme: Spread No Huddle; Defensive scheme: 4-4

Top offensive players: Seniors Kai Castle (QB/LB) and Ming Nelson (OL/DL); junior Antoine Holmes (RB/LB).

Top defensive players: Seniors Miles Crook (DL/OL) and Christian Badham (DL/FB); sophomore John Tatum (DB).

Coach’s corner: “This year’s team is a strong group of kids who have showed great commitment throughout the offseason. Our numbers as a program are the highest they have been since I have been coaching here. … In order to be successful in this league, we will have to be able to effectively stop the opposing team’s run game. On offense, we want to limit our mistakes and get the ball in the hands of our playmakers. We want to keep the momentum going from last year’s playoff team while still creating an identity for this year’s team.” — head coach Tom Browne.

Reservoir

2018 record: 4-6

Coach: Bryan Cole

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Returning offensive starters: 5; Returning defensive starters: 6

Offensive scheme: Pro-style; Defensive scheme: 3-4

Top offensive players: Seniors Darius Ellerbe (RB), Jalen Jasmin (WR) and Justin Cotton (TE); junior Malcolm Brown (QB).

Top defensive players: Seniors Dylan Altman (DL), Nico Tulloch (CB), Otis Ashton (LB) and Darius Ellerbe (DB).

Coach’s corner: “We have a determined group of young men who have been working hard in the offseason. They have a great outlook, work hard and are hopeful for the opportunities upcoming this season.” — head coach Bryan Cole.

River Hill

2018 record: 7-3, 8-4; 2A South region finalists

Coach: Brian Van Deusen

Returning offensive starters: 4; Returning defensive starters: 8

Offensive scheme: Hybrid Wing-T; Defensive scheme: 3-5-3

Top offensive players: Seniors Anthony Behrmann (RB), Keegan Remick (QB) and Ethan Brown (OL); juniors Christian Myers (WR) and Gurdeep Barring (OL).

Top defensive players: Seniors Beau Brade (DB), Derek Sandoval (DB) and Michael Ogbolu (DL); juniors Zach Igwebe (LB) and Nick Laumann (LB).

Coach’s corner: “We are very excited about our defense. We have eight returning defensive starters and have better team speed than last year. On offense, we are young and inexperienced on the offensive line, but we have depth in the backfield that will have to carry us early in the season.” — head coach Brian Van Deusen.

Wilde Lake

2018 record: 6-4

Coach: Brian Henderson

Returning offensive starters: 4; Returning defensive starters: 6

Offensive scheme: Multi-set pro offense; Defensive scheme: 3-5-3 Stack

Top offensive players: Juniors Malik Hough (QB), Amari Hutson (WR), Allen Ngue (RB) and Izair Perry (RB).

Top defensive players: Seniors Jarrett Monah (LB), Nate Unuigbe (DE) and Cameron Burris (DE); juniors William Parker (LB) and Ramal West (DB).

Coach’s corner: “The entire program football program has gone through several changes, yet what remains the same is the commitment to the traditions that have been established at the Lake. So many young faces are now ready to make their mark in the program and the county. Wilde Lake will be relying on several returning All-County players to help elevate the program to the next level.” — head coach Brian Henderson.

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