It's been 40 years since the last time the Howard football team was in the position it's in now – in the final game of the season, one win away from a state championship.
On Friday, Dec. 4 at 7:30 p.m., the undefeated Lions will take the field against undefeated Henry A. Wise under the bright lights of M&T Bank Stadium, the home of the Baltimore Ravens, with the 4A state title on the line. It's the first time in Howard County history a football team will be playing in the 4A championship.
"I'm extremely excited for the kids, I really am. As coaches, we put a lot on them," says Howard coach Bruce Strunk. "We preach doing the right thing and hard work, and I'm on their backs year round trying to hold them accountable to do a little extra work, and we're vindicated by getting to this game. I'm so proud of the kids because they work harder than anybody around and they deserve it."
The Pumas, of Prince Georges County, pose a greater challenge than any team the Lions have faced all season long. They have scored 535 points, an average of more than 41 per game, and have put up 40 or more points in nine of 13 games. Defensively, they have allowed only 71 points, an average of less than 5.5 points per game, shutout five opponents and haven't allowed more than two touchdowns in any game all season.
That doesn't faze Howard, though. Strunk says his team has been in the underdog role for the last few weeks, and his team has only risen to the occasion and proved the doubters wrong.
"A lot of people haven't thought much about our kids all year long and have counted us out along the way," he says. "We weren't supposed beat Sherwood, we weren't supposed to beat Broadneck, we weren't supposed to beat this team or that team throughout the season. We just keep winning."
As for a key to the game, the Lions must avoid a sluggish first quarter that put them behind both Sherwood and Broadneck early. Against the Warriors, Howard trailed 14-6 before 21 unanswered in the span of several minutes before the half. It was a similar start against the Bruins, who jumped out to a 10-0 lead that could have easily been 14-0, before the Lions broke loose for 21 straight points again just before the half.
Strunk knows that won't cut it against a Wise team that has simply dominated every opponent and has outscored of its opponents by 464 points.
"I think we're trying to figure out their game plan as they're trying to figure out ours. Once we can figure out what they're trying to do, we exploit it and do the best we can," Strunk says. "It's huge [to not go down early]. If we don't go out there and play our game right away, it could be 21-0. They're that good. They're very fast, very athletic, but I don't see that happening this week. I think our kids are focused and ready to go. We just have to adapt to the bright lights quickly."
Adjusting to the moment and the atmosphere of playing in an NFL stadium and in a state title game is something the Pumas have done, as they won a state championship in 2012. Strunk admits that his team felt the advantage last week against Broadneck, considering the Howard was in its second one in as many years while it was new to the Bruins.
There will be no time for shock and awe for the Lions, though. Neither can't enter the stadium until 6 p.m. and can't take the field until 6:40 p.m.
Getting there early "would be the ideal situation, but we're telling the kids, this isn't just another game. That would be us lying to them," Strunk says. "This is the state championship, and we're going to let them enjoy the lights and the hoopla in the beginning, but when we start warming up we're getting focused. I can't tell them it's just another game and they walk into that. They've earned that right though. I'm excited for them."
When the game kicks off, Wise will be the bigger team, Srunk says, as the interior of both the defensive and offensive lines feature several 300-pound athletes. It also boasts a number of Division I signees on defense, specifically at defensive back.
"They play really good defense and they have very good defensive backs. They're aggressive and they come after you," Strunk says. "Offensively, they pound the ball. They have a very big offensive line, some good, athletics [running] backs, and the quarterback is mobile. ... They're just a very good team, but in the state finals I expect that."
For Howard, Strunk says his offense needs to control the ball behind seniors quarterback Casey Crawford and running back Malik Anderson, avoid three-and-outs and keep the defense fresh for the second half.