River Hill has extra incentive as it seeks fourth state football title

On Thursday, Nov. 29, River Hill will take the field at M&T Bank Stadium against Huntingtown in the 3A state football championship game, completing a journey that began in mid-August.

But in a way, the journey began in 2006, when the Hawks competed in their first state championship game. Although they lost that game, to Friendly, it kick-started an era of success for the Hawks, who have played to an incredible 75-5 record since then with three state titles.

"We've got a great team, and I think we can do it again this year," said senior Evan Griffin, who intercepted three passes in last week's 29-7 semifinal win over Urbana. "We just have to stay focused all week and practice hard."

While River Hill (13-0) had not played Urbana before, it does have some history with Huntingtown (12-1). In 2009, on the day after Thanksgiving, the Hawks traveled to Calvert County for a 3A state semifinal game with the Hurricanes and lost, 10-7, ending a 40-game win streak that dated back to the first game of the 2007 season.

"We have not really talked about the game in 2009. Different teams, but still similar styles to three years ago," River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen said. "Most of the kids on our team were in middle school or 9th grade at the time."

First-year Huntingtown coach Brendan Galligan, who was an assistant under longtime coach Jerry Franks back in 2009, had a similar sentiment.

"They're completely different teams. The seniors in this class, most of them were sitting up in the stands watching that game as freshmen," said Galligan, who has been with Huntingtown since 2004. "River Hill is throwing the ball a lot more this year."

To his point, River Hill senior quarterback Austin Altman has broken numerous school passing records this season, completing 107 passes for 2,241 yards and 27 touchdowns so far. Griffin (30 catches, 619 yards, 7 TDs) and senior Nick Ball (34, 638, 9) are the Hawks' top receivers. And River Hill has also rushed for more than 3,000 yards and 49 touchdowns, led by Griffin (916 yards, 13 TDs) and senior Justin Arn (974, 14).

But Galligan knows that he can't focus all of his attention on stopping the Hawks on offense.

"River Hill's offense gets a lot of credit because it's unique and there's a lot of misdirection, but their defense has been dominant for a long time," he said. "The challenge is going to be moving the ball against them and trying to score some points."

River Hill's disruptive trio of down linemen — senior Justin Nestor (7 sacks, 12 tackles for loss), and juniors Logan Kirby (5.5, 21) and Anthony Corrao (9.5, 8) — have helped the Hawks hold opponents to less than 10 points per game, with six shutouts.

"They're like my brothers on the D-line. We all work together, we're all really close. We just like to do our job and really work together," Nestor said.

Nestor and his brothers in arms — linebackers Stephan Osong, Nick Schanne, Justin Arn, Brian Kirby and Ryan Doyle who have combined for more than 400 tackles — will be tasked with slowing down a Huntingtown offense that rushed for 439 yards in last Saturday's 34-6 state semifinal win at Milford Mill.

"We've been pretty successful running the ball this year and a lot of that has to do with the offensive line and also the depth at the running back position," Galligan said.

Junior Arnez Bowens has rushed for 1,290 yards and 14 TDs this season, but senior Carl Riffe has added 703 yards and 12 scores, including 215 and three against Milford Mill. Quarterback Zach Piazza has passed for almost 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Huntingtown, which has never won a state title, avenged its only loss — to Westlake — in the regional finals, and the Hurricanes have allowed only 52 points in the six games since that loss.

"We're an experienced group. As the year has progressed we've gotten better on defense," Galligan said. "They want to finish the job."

And although River Hill has now been here five times in the last seven seasons, Van Deusen and his Hawks are as hungry as ever to add their fourth state championship trophy to the case.

"It never gets old, I'll tell you that," Van Deusen said.

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