Atholton High School's football team finally uncovered a silver lining.
When the Raiders came to Glenelg Saturday, they arrived with a look unlike any Atholton team in recent memory.
First of all, they weren't contenders. Atholton, swamped by youth and inexperience, was far from it.
The Raiders had lost four of their first five games -- three by lopsided scores -- their worst start in 16 years under Coach Don Van Deusen. Their offense had yet to sustain a long drive. They had changed quarterbacks two weeks earlier. Their best receiver and prime scoring threat was unavailable. And they were still trying to swallow a week-old, last-minute, 15-14 loss to Howard.
Yet despite the unfriendly hand they were dealt, a funny thing happened to the Raiders at Glenelg, even though their offense still stumbled and they were basically outplayed.
They won. Wide receiver Doug Bowen made an excellent, off-balance catch of a Brian Van Deusen pass down the left sideline, then ran untouched into the end zone to complete a 48-yard scoring play with 8:35 left in the game.
Joe Yankle kicked the extra point, and Atholton hung on for a gritty 14-13 victory to spoil Glenelg's Homecoming.
Suddenly, for a team that had managed merely 29 points through five games while surrendering 147, the season was new again. And a 2-4 record never looked so good.
"It wasn't like we played great (against Glenelg). We still have a long way to go. We need to work on our offensive blocking and our pass rush.
Looking at the film, we certainly didn't play our best game."
Forgive Van Deusen if he chooses to replay continuously the final seconds, which show the Raiders shaking hands and slapping helmets as they run out the clock. It's easily the season's sweetest moment to date.
"It's been tough this year," said Yankle, the Raiders' fullback/linebacker/kicker/punter, one of only two returning starters.
Lineman David Snyder is the other.
Yankle speaks with a sense of perspective. Last year he and Snyder enjoyed the success most players experience in Van Deusen's program. The Raiders have tied for the county championship twice -- 1976 and 1988 -- and have been perennial contenders. Last year Atholton went 8-2 and came within three minutes of a county title before losing its only league game to Wilde Lake.
This year Yankle and Snyder have gotten a taste of how the other half lives. Like the 48-0 loss to Cambridge-South Dorchester. Or the 55-6 pounding by Oakland Mills a week later.
"We tried to forget the out-of-county games," Yankle said. "With the Oakland Mills game, we knew we just didn't have the talent they had. After that game, we started from scratch."
The renewed effort only made the next week's defeat harder to take.
Howard beat the Raiders, 15-14 in the final minute on a touchdown and a two-point conversion.
Then, when Atholton came to play a formidable Glenelg team, they did so without junior Brian Gick, a first-year surprise who leads the team in pass receptions (14), receiving yardage (206) and touchdowns (2). Gick was out of town attending a family wedding.
"We needed big plays. We also needed a little luck," Yankle said.
The Raiders got both wishes, and were able to offset Glenelg's decisive advantages in first downs (13-5) and yardage from scrimmage (274-163).
Brian Hannah blocked a Glenelg punt in the game's opening minute to give Atholton the ball on the Gladiators' 7. On fourth-and-goal, Dale Kelly ran for a 1-yard score. Yankle's extra point gave the Raiders a 7-0 lead.
Atholton fell victim to two big plays. Glenelg quarterback Mike D'Andrea (16-for-37, 196 yards) hit Brian LaGuardia for a 57-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7-7 at the end of the first quarter, and the Gladiators took the lead in the third period on a 26-yard TD run by Darren Mahoney. The extra point was no good, however, and Glenelg's lead stood at 13-7.
The rest of the big moments and the luck belonged to Atholton.
The Raiders benefited from three Glenelg turnovers -- a fumble and two interceptions by Peter Roeser, the second coming late in the third quarter.
Glenelg, leading 13-7, had driven 46 yards and had a first-and-goal at the Atholton 6. After Mark Dalton picked up two yards, the Gladiators elected to ignore the rushing attack that had produced 84 yards on 16 carries to that point -- not to mention a wet field that had contributed to several dropped passes -- and go to the air.
D'Andrea's pass slipped through the hands of Jim Bielski in the end zone, was tipped by one Atholton player and landed in Roeser's grip. He returned it 19 yards. Atholton punted, but three plays later recovered a Glenelg fumble at the Raiders 48. On third down, quarterback Brian Van Deusen hit Bowen with the game-winner.
The Atholton defense then stopped Glenelg twice on downs in the fourth period, which was highlighted by Yankle's 52-yard punt over the strangely drawn-in Glenelg coverage.
"We still weren't able to drive the ball down the field, but we played good field position football," coach Van Deusen said. "Our kicking game and our defense were bright spots."
Not to mention the other Van Deusen, who played well for the second straight week since taking the job from Tommy Ecker -- a change proving beneficial to both players.
Van Deusen completed nine of 15 passes for 66 yards and has thrown for 164 yards and three TDs in two games. With Van Deusen at the controls, Atholton has scored four touchdowns in two games, double what the Raiders managed in the previous four.
Ecker also played superbly in the defensive backfield. He led the team with eight tackles.
The Raiders won't have much time to enjoy the victory with Wilde Lake next up this weekend, but as Yankle hinted, the win over Glenelg may have saved what's left of the season.
"That was a pride thing," he said. "We feel real good. The way we're looking at it, the winning isn't as important as improving. We feel we can go 5-5."