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North County armed for season Knights don't let summer pass by


In less than two months, Justin Rice will be manning the quarterback position for North County High School's football team.

Though familiar with the pass-happy, run-and-shoot offense after backing up starter Eric Howard last season, Rice didn't sit idly by waiting for practices to begin on Aug. 15.

Who had time to rest? There were snaps to be taken, and a championship to be sought.

Rice played quarterback for North County in the Mid-Atlantic Summer Passing League, leading his team to a 7-1 record and a berth in last night's state title game against Bishop McNamara at the University of Maryland.

North County made a strong showing in the final, but was defeated, 14-12.

Rice completed 26 of 35 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns.

He hit Teon Carter from 35 yards out to reduce Bishop McNamara's lead to 7-6, and he connected with Kevin Mitchell for a seven-yard score to account for the final margin.

"This is giving me and the receivers a chance to know the patterns better, and it gives me different situations to work in," Rice said on Monday.

It was a different brand of football than Rice will see this fall, but at least he found himself surrounded by familiar faces.

In the MASPL, each squad uses six players on offense and seven on defense. And every member of the Knights will be suiting up this fall for their high school team, coached by Chuck Markiewicz.

"This is like a month of teaching for these guys," Markiewicz said.

The person doing the teaching was Keith Francis, 21, who has been Markiewicz's statistician for the past two years. In his first season as a head coach in the MASPL, Francis got the desired results.

"I was pretty confident that we'd be going to College Park this year," he said. "Being with Coach Markiewicz the last two years, I know the offense pretty well now. I felt that, with the athletes and my little bit of coaching knowledge, we could get there.

"This is like a summer practice for us. The majority of the other teams don't pass the ball during the regular [high school] season, so they just send everybody out in pass patterns. We're running the offense that we run during the regular season."

The Knights used a wide-open attack at the beginning of the year against a steady diet of man-to-man coverages.

But as teams began devising alternate strategies, North County switched to a ball-control offense that proved equally effective.

"We were just going deep, running past people," Francis said, "but people started sitting back off of us once they saw we could score."

Rice made a smooth adjustment to the change in offensive philosophy, as did the rest of the Knights.

"The receivers had to read the defenders more," Rice said, "and we had to communicate about what patterns were run a certain way and how to get open."

Rice's favorite target was Carter, but he had a multitude of weapons, including split end Mitchell, slots Lou Brown and Topper Ellis and running back Reggie Moore.

"They know the system real well and they just go out there and do what they've got to do," Francis said. "Now that we went to ball control, we can score almost at will."

That wasn't the case in last week's Anne Arundel County Division final, when the Knights needed a late touchdown pass from Rice to Mitchell to beat South River, 14-6.

"We had to buckle down," Francis said. "We played our best defensive game when we had to. I'm proud of the players for that."

After winning its first six games, North County was upset by Severna Park, 20-14.

"We did the wrong thing. We were looking past them and not really doing our job," Francis said. "We went out there lackluster, threw some interceptions and blew some coverages and they beat us. They took advantage of our mistakes."

With no other opponents looming beyond Bishop McNamara, focusing on last night's game wasn't a problem.

The Knights just had trouble scoring. They drove to the 2-yard line on their first possession, but came away empty. It proved to be a sign of things to come.

"I'm very proud of these guys -- very proud," Francis said. "They gave me 100 percent on every play."

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