With about three minutes remaining, Atholton’s offense took over on its own 24-yard line, needing two first downs to seal the game.
But on the first play of the drive, Hammond’s defense forced a fumble to put its offense in position to win the game.
The Raiders defense, however, didn’t waver, forcing a turnover on downs en route to Atholton’s 7-6 road victory over the Golden Bears on Friday night.
"I’m proud of our kids. Today was a collective effort,” said Atholton head coach Justin Carey. “That was really big. We continue to coach the mindset, but at the end of the day this game is about kids making plays.”
The performance was the best from Atholton’s defense all season, as they had only kept an opponent below 21 points once. The Raiders held Hammond to 168 yards of offense.
The triumph is the fourth straight for the Raiders. After starting 0-4 against River Hill, Oakland Mills, Wilde Lake and Long Reach, Carey’s squad has ripped off victories over North Hagerstown, Mt. Hebron, Reservoir and Hammond to keep the team’s playoff hopes alive.
“We knew we had all the players and all the depth,” said senior defensive back Nolan Krasnick. “We just had to put it all together, and we’ve been doing that the past four weeks.”
“The postseason for teams like us that started off like that is the saving grace mentally,” Carey said. “In the old system, 0-4 means you’re eliminated. With the new system and the way things shake out, you’re always in it.”
Hammond, meanwhile, had its Howard County championship hopes die. A ruling by county officials earlier in the week put the Golden Bears in position to share the county title if they defeated Atholton and Centennial, but the loss puts Hammond at 3-2 in county play and out of contention.
“It just didn’t seem like we could get going,” said Hammond head coach Will Bell. “When we started moving the ball, it seemed like there was always something pulling us back — a penalty, a false start, a delay of game.”
The first half of the contest was ugly, as officials threw more penalty flags than players gained first downs. Neither team scored in the half or even came close to the red zone, as the 24 minutes featured four punts, three turnovers on downs and four more punts.
Atholton, though, came out of halftime firing, as senior quarterback Ethan Brown found a wide-open Mishael Roy for a 43-yard touchdown to put the Raiders up 7-0. In hindsight, Joe Hobbs’ extra point was the difference in the contest.
“That was big,” Carey said. “We came out that first drive and put it together. (Roy) made it happen and snagged one.”
Hammond came out with a new offense in the second half, led by running back Sam Mercedes in the Wildcat formation. The change of pace worked, as Mercedes led the Golden Bears down to Atholton’s 24-yard line. Quarterback Eric Grinwis then connected with Jahni Lawrence in the end zone for a 24-yard score. Mercedes, who was later knocked out of the game with a leg injury, totaled 75 yards on 20 carries.
The Golden Bears don’t have a kicker, so Bell was forced to go for two after the score. The jet sweep to Tayshawn Yates came up inches short, as the wideout reached for the pylon but was hit by Krasnick before he broke the plane.
Hammond thought it scored a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter on a long pass from Grinwis to Yates, but the officials — after a three-minute conference — flagged Yates for illegal touching. Yates went out of bounds on the catch and was the first player to touch the ball, which is against the rules, unless the defender forced him out. The drive later stalled, and Hammond was forced to punt for the sixth of seven times.
“One-hundred percent he was forced out,” Bell said. “He came back in as soon as he could and made a great play. All of us thought and assumed touchdown, but it went the other way. We were penalized, and that put us way behind the sticks.”
After the Raiders defense forced the four-and-out following the fumble, Brown sealed the victory with a 7-yard run on third-and-6. The senior signal caller finished the game with 56 rushing yards on eight carries.
“He’s a great kid with great ability,” Carey said.
Both teams finish their regular seasons next week. Hammond travels to Centennial, while Atholton hosts Marriotts Ridge.
Atholton 7, Hammond 6
A — 0 0 7 0 — 7
Ha — 0 0 6 0 — 6
A: Ethan Brown 43-yard pass to Mishael Roy, Joe Hobbs kick [7-0]
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Ha: Eric Grinwis 24-yard pass to Jahni Lawrence [7-6]