Highlights of Long Reach vs. Atholton football on Friday, November 3, 2017. (Tim Schwartz / BSMG video)
HOWARD COUNTY, MD — There were so many playoff scenarios entering Friday night’s game between Long Reach and Atholton. A win for the Raiders meant they could earn the No. 1 seed in the 3A East region playoffs. A loss for the Lightning, and they could be sitting at home next week, on the outside looking in.
J.M. Bennett, Northeast and Chesapeake — the latter two of which also faced off Friday night — were also in contention for the four postseason spots, and all four seeds were still up in the air and dependent on results from all over the state from the final week of the regular season.
But one thing was absolutely clear: a win for Long Reach meant it would qualify for the playoffs for the second straight season.
“We said our playoffs start today,” senior running back KaDarrian Booker said. “We either win or we go home. Today, we showed it and gave it our all like it was our last game and that’s what we did. We came out with the victory.”
Behind a big second half by Booker, the Lightning beat the Raiders, 14-13, to clinch one of the four spots in the 3A East regional playoffs. Atholton, despite the loss, also qualified for the postseason for the first time since 2012.
“We’ve got one of our goals, to make the playoffs,” Long Reach coach Jamie Willis said. “Our focus has been really good this week. ... They’re a good football team. We might end up playing them again. We knew we had to come out and take care of our business and do what we do.”
Atholton entered the game with a hold on the No. 1 seed but could now be the two, three or four seed. Coach Justin Carey’s team had several key missed opportunities, including a missed field goal and another that was blocked, as well as a fake field goal pass that failed instead of kicking an extra point to tie the game after scoring a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, that proved costly.
“It’s frustrating but it’s still a learning experience for our program,” he said.
The Raiders couldn’t capitalize on a short field and had a 23-yard field goal attempt blocked on their opening drive and then lost a fumble later in the first quarter to stall another drive that started inside Lightning territory. Their next possession early in the second lasted 10 plays but ended with a 37-yard field goal attempt that sailed wide right.
Still, Atholton struck first and took a 7-0 lead late in the second quarter on a 12-yard run by Melvin Brown, who had a huge second half and finished with two touchdowns and 192 yards on 20 carries — all in the final three quarters.
Long Reach, which punted on four of its first five possessions and had a blocked punt end the other, answered on their next offensive play. Quran Sims caught a slant up the middle and outran the defenders for an 87-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Tyler Moore.
“It was a little tunnel screen and Quran is fast as crap. He makes a dude miss and he can go the distance,” Willis said. “We were just trying to get our playmakers the ball and play good defense and that’s what we did. We played good defense in the second half and got our run game going.”
Booker, who had just 25 yards rushing on seven carries in the first half, carried the Lightning throughout the second half. He rushed for 49 yards on 10 touches during a 13-play, 63-yard drive on their first second-half possession and capped it with a 3-yard touchdown run to make it 14-7 in favor of Long Reach.
Of the Lightning’s 34 total plays in the final two quarters, Booker ran 26 times for 95 yards and finished the night with 120 yards on 33 carries.
“They said [at halftime] that we were going to run the ball down their throat because that’s what we like to do,” Booker said. “So that’s what we did.”
Chris Martin intercepted a pass to end Atholton’s following drive but the Lightning couldn’t convert it into points, missing a 31-yard field goal attempt.
But their biggest miscue came late in the game.
They had Atholton pinned at its own 5-yard line on a 3rd and 19, only to let Brown get loose for a 36-yard run. Brown broke free again on the next play and went 59-yards into the end zone to pull the Raiders to within one, 14-13, with 2:22 remaining.
Atholton, with a playoff spot already locked up, played for the win and failed to convert.
Long Reach has its sights set on “trying to get that monkey off out back,” as Willis said, by winning their first-ever playoff game.
“It’s very important. It’s important to our kids, it’s important to Long Reach High School and the Long Reach community, so that’s what we’re going to do,” Willis added. “No one’s expectations are higher than ours.”