When River Hill's Austin Altman was at a football camp during his sophomore year, someone pointed out that — with his droopy eyes and easy smile — he resembled future Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Peyton Manning. The youngster didn't get upset. Instead, he went out and did everything he could to make the nickname "Manning" stick.
"I like that comparison, I like being called Manning," said Altman, who this year, as a senior, led River Hill to a 14-0 season and a second straight state championship.
Altman, who also set numerous school passing records this season, finishing with 116 completions for 2,397 yards and 27 touchdowns, can also now be called something else: the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier offensive Player of the Year.
"A lot of the records are team records. But in my quarterback notebook I kept a goal sheet, and one of the goals I wrote down was offensive Player of the Year, so that feels pretty good," said Altman, who threw touchdown passes to five different receivers and also rushed for six touchdowns.
Just a few years ago, that goal would have seemed ridiculous.
Playing soccer through most of his youth, Altman began to tire of that sport as he entered high school. So, he decided to switch over to football in eighth grade. That year on his rec team, he said, he played defensive end and tight end as the last player off the bench.
Then, as a freshman at River Hill, he was the seventh quarterback on JV.
To be fair, that group did include Raamah Vaughn — the quarterback of last year's state champion team — and Mark Darden, who transferred to Glenelg and became their starting quarterback, among others.
"That was a good group of kids. But (Altman) got a little bit taller and really developed his skills and worked on his arm strength," coach Brian Van Deusen said. "We saw some potential."
Van Deusen, an Atholton graduate who set numerous passing records himself at Western Maryland College (now McDaniel), noticed all the little things that Altman was doing to improve himself as a quarterback.
The only problem was, River Hill — which had only lost three games in the four seasons prior — lost two of its first four games with him at stating quarterback.
"Austin didn't get a chance to do a whole lot in those games," Van Deusen said. "But that was a learning experience."
And Altman didn't wilt under the adversity, instead using the losses for motivation.
"That reflected badly on me," he said. "That's when I realized that it wasn't all physical, that it was mental, too. And that's when I started working on learning the game."
After a leg injury to Altman, Vaughn took over at quarterback and led a run-based offense to 10 straight victories and the program's third state championship. Altman celebrated the championship while standing on the sideline writing down plays on a clipboard.
His goal then became to be the one out on the field throwing the football at Ravens Stadium instead of just writing down plays.
And as a senior this year, he hit the ground running — throwing three touchdown passes in three of the first four games — and never slowed down.
"We spread the ball all over, he wanted to keep everybody happy," Van Deusen said. "His decision-making and leadership: those were the things I was most proud of."
Altman's bounty of school records this season includes season touchdown passes, passing percentage — an excellent 65 percent (116/178) — and season passing yards, among others. But his favorite accomplishment of the season was earning a state championship with his teammates on Nov. 29 over Huntingtown.
"Being able to get excited for practice everyday and being with your best friends, that's what I'll miss the most," he said. "That's what you don't realize at the time."
Luke Casey, Atholton. A Mount St. Joseph transfer, Casey quickly became popular at his new school. He finished the season with more than 1,500 passing yards and 15 touchdowns against only four interceptions, and also rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 11 more touchdowns. In a regional championship game at River Hill he intercepted a pass in a rare defensive appearance and threw three touchdown passes in the final four minutes for a near-comeback.
Michael Anderson, Howard. One of the top rushers in the league (1,394 yards on 193 carries), Anderson scored an impressive 19 touchdowns on the ground. He also caught a pair of touchdown passes and was one of the league's most dangerous kick returners. Anderson scored a touchdown in the Maryland Crab Bowl All-Star game.
Evan Griffin, River Hill. As one of Altman's most dangerous weapons, Griffin collected 32 passes for 637 yards and seven touchdowns. He also rushed for 1,022 yards and 13 more scores, was the team's punter (33.5 yards per punt), added over 500 return yards with a touchdown, made 75 tackles and intercepted a league-best five passes, with three in the playoffs.
Dionte Jones, Hammond. As the majority of Hammond's offense, opponents sent eight or nine defenders to the line of scrimmage on almost every play, but Jones still managed an outstanding senior season. He broke his ankle in week ten — against Mt. Hebron — but not before rushing for 185 yards and three TDs in less than two quarters of play. He is expected to be back up and running by February.
Nick Ball, River Hill. As a major beneficiary of Altman's outstanding season, Ball set a school record of his own with nine touchdown receptions, breaking the previous record of eight set by Michael Campanaro, who is now a star receiver at Wake Forest. In total, Ball caught a team-best 37 passes for 678 yards. He also returned punts and kicks and made 47 tackles as a defensive back.
David Brookhart, Glenelg. As one of the most dynamic players in the league, Brookhart managed to score a touchdown every sixth time he touched the ball, including two kick returns and a punt return for touchdowns. He was especially dangerous in the open field, catching 27 passes for 346 yards and five touchdowns.
Keyon Pinnock, Atholton. The league's receiving leader, Pinnock enjoyed a breakout season, catching 42 passes for 823 yards and ten touchdowns. He was also very dangerous on special teams, with five kick returns for 175 yards, including a touchdown. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, his combination of athleticism, size and speed has attracted the attention of schools such as Towson and Fordham.
Cory Daniel, River Hill. Only a junior, Daniel found his niche in the Hawks' loaded offense. He caught 17 passes for more than 300 yards and five touchdowns. One of his catches, on third down in the state championship game, saved a touchdown drive in the 18-14 win. The defending county champion wrestler was also a great blocker in the run game and made 28 tackles on defense.
Dario Burley, Reservoir. At 6-foot-1 and 300 pounds, Burley was surprisingly nimble for his size. He helped clear the way for an offense that rushed for more than 2,000 yards (172 per game) and protected junior quarterback Max Schuster. He also made more than 30 tackles on defense.
Jack Friedman, Howard. The crown jewel in the Lions' vaunted offensive line, Friedman was a key to Anderson's highly successful season running the ball. Friedman, listed at 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds, was also the foundation of the Lions' defensive line. A three-year starter, he is looking to play in Division I-AA next season.
Roy Kadje, Oakland Mills. Using the same combination of massive size and deceptive quickness that made him a state-place-winning heavyweight wrestler last season, Kadje was one of the few bright spots in the Scorpions' winless season. Excellent footwork allowed the 300-pounder to make some headway in the running game despite a very young corps of running backs carrying the ball behind him.
Ben Mathews, Atholton. The Raiders' best overall lineman and strongest athlete, Mathews led the way on most of the run plays, making way for more than 2,600 rushing yards, including a pair of 1,000 yard rushers (Luke Casey and Isaac Murray). On defense he made 34 tackles, including 2.5 sacks.
Justin Nestor, River Hill. One of the most dominant players in the county, the 6-foot-3, 260-pound Nestor was at his best in the playoffs, with five tackles for loss, including a ten-yard sack, coming in the state championship game. In addition to helping the Hawks rush for more than 3,300 yards and 52 touchdowns, Nestor had 14 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks, forced four fumbles, blocked two kicks and recorded a safety.
Justin Arn, River Hill. On a team of players that did everything, Arn stood out. He led the team with 1,060 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, but also caught 15 passes for 482 yards and four more scores. He collected 182 yards, including a touchdown, on only four kickoff return opportunities. On defense, he caused three fumbles, recovered four, made 12 tackles for loss and had five sacks. He also intercepted a pass in the state championship game to thwart a Huntingtown drive.
Pat Mullens, Atholton. The Raiders' most complete player, Mullens would have even stepped in at quarterback if the situation called for it. As a fullback, he was a lead blocker in the Raiders' prolific run game, and as a receiver, he caught 31 passes for 400 yards, including two touchdowns. Defensively, he made 93 tackles and had a nose for the ball, recovering five fumbles for turnovers. He also returned kicks for the Raiders.
Austin Marsh, Reservoir. As a three-year varsity starter, Marsh finished his Gators' career with 99 kicking points, including 44 (26/29 extra points, 6/8 field goals) this season. Capable of booting the ball all the way into the end zone, he had 11 touchbacks on kickoffs and punts this season. Marsh was successful in his only on-side kick attempt, recovering the ball himself. In a playoff loss at Atholton, he averaged more than 37 yards on five punts, and finished the season with eight special teams tackles.