Senior linebacker Ryan Kearney talks about his team’s emotional win over Paint Branch in the 4A North final on Nov. 17. (Kyle Stackpole / BSMG staff)
It was hard for senior Ryan Kearney to find the words to describe Howard football’s 33-20 win over Paint Branch in the 4A North final on Friday night.
The offense did its job. The defense played well.
But above all, the Lions came together on what was a difficult day for Kearney and the Lions program. During the morning hours, they had mourned the loss of Kearney’s father, Pat, who passed away after a battle with cancer.
At night, they honored him and the entire Kearney family with a fourth straight regional title.
“We’re a family,” Kearney said. “I love every one of them.”
With the win, Howard (12-0) advances to the 4A state semifinals and will play Wise, which defeated Eleanor Roosevelt, 34-16, in the 4A South region championship. The Pumas have ended the Lions’ season each of the past two years.
But for much of the Lions’ game Friday night, they were in danger of not making it out of their own region. Two long Paint Branch touchdown passes tied the game at 14 before intermission, and the Panthers were threatening to pull ahead on their opening possession of the second half.
Facing a 3rd-and-10 from the Lions 35-yard line, junior Norman Douglas dumped a pass off to senior Ali Sheriff over the middle. About a second later, Kearney single-handedly changed the momentum. He delivered a punishing blow to Sheriff, who lost the ball upon contact and senior Robert Agbai recovered.
After Kearney finished celebrating on the field, nearly the entire team made its way over to congratulate him for the play that ended up turning around the game.
“We lost the momentum, and we knew that we needed the momentum on our side,” Kearney said. “An opportunity presented itself, and I took advantage of that, and my team just kept going from there.”
Four plays later, Agbai received a pitch to the left side, waited for his blocks to materialize and then burst through the open seam, sprinting down the sideline for a 37-yard touchdown to put the Lions up, 20-14, midway through the third quarter. Paint Branch never came closer.
“He sniffed it out, he read it, he was prepared, and he finished the play,” first-year Howard coach Ross Hannon said. “He’s a leader and the heart and soul of this team.”
Paint Branch (10-2) drove the ball back inside Howard territory on the next possession, but a holding call forced them into an unfavorable down and distance. The Panthers were forced to punt, and running back Devin Dawkins, who scored a kickoff return touchdown in the Lions’ 20-18 win over Sherwood last week, was back to receive.
Upon corralling the ball, Dawkins weaved through defenders to reach the left sideline before outrunning everyone en route to the end zone for what marked the second score of the night for Dawkins, who finished with 167 yards rushing on 26 carries.
After the touchdown, which put the Lions up 12 points, Dawkins made sure to find Kearney, who was kneeling on the other side of the field. “We’re not done yet,” Dawkins kept telling Kearney, and he was making sure of it. The entire team was going to finish the game strong for him, Dawkins said.
And sure enough, two plays later, senior Emmanuel Stokes forced another fumble, and the ball popped into the hands of junior linebacker Ben Stephanos. With open turf in front of him, Stephanos rumbled his way to the end zone seconds into the fourth quarter.
Paint Branch added a touchdown later in the period, but with about two minutes to play, Stephanos secured an interception to seal the victory.
“We told the team before and after the game that games like this come down to turnovers and special teams,” Panthers coach Mike Nesmith said. “You can’t make mistakes like that in these types of games.”
Looking ahead to next week, Howard will attempt to avenge its past postseason blowout losses to Wise. Last season, the Lions suffered a 48-0 defeat in the same position they’re in now. The year before, the Pumas won, 55-6, in the 4A state championship.
But Hannon isn’t interested in discussing those matchups. The 2017 Lions are a different team writing their own history.