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Football: River Hill dominates Thomas Johnson for 3A state title

River Hill players celebrate their 41-13 victory over Thomas Johnson in Class 3A state football championship game at M&T Bank Stadium Saturday night.
River Hill players celebrate their 41-13 victory over Thomas Johnson in Class 3A state football championship game at M&T Bank Stadium Saturday night. (Steve Ruark, Patuxent Publishing)

After River Hill won the 3A state football championship Saturday night at M&T Bank Stadium, defeating Thomas Johnson, 41-13, senior captain Riley Davis reflected back to the fall of his freshman year, when River Hill won the 2008 2A title game on the same field.

The star linebacker and team's leading tackler was on the sideline as a freshman call-up on that team.

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"Freshman year a couple of us got pulled up to the varsity and we were on that state championship team," he said. "I didn't really think back then how it would feel now, and it hasn't really set in yet, but it's awesome to go out on top as a senior and do what those guys did."

What Davis, or his coaches, could have never imagined was the fashion in which they would beat their opponent in a state championship game.

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"We were a little concerned. Thomas Johnson is a very good team, they've been on a roll the last five games beating some very good teams: Seneca Valley, Damascus and Huntingtown. And they outsized us a little bit, so we had our work cut out for us and we knew that, we had to play well in all three phases," he said.

But the Patriots were undermined by eight turnovers and more than 100 penalty yards, while River Hill used its dominant line play to overwhelm Thomas Johnson at the point of attack.

"Our defense was outstanding, everytime it seemed like they were about to get something going we stepped up and made a play whether it was a fumble or an interception," Van Deusen said.

Thomas Johnson fumbled the ball away on each of its first two possessions, leading to a Raamah Vaughn 8-yard touchdown run midway through the opening frame. The key play on that drive was a halfback pass from Evan Griffin to P.J. Kinkead for a 27-yard gain to the Patriots 10-yard line on third and 14.

"After they gave it to us again we knew we had to just take it from them," said Randall Lawson, who finished with two interceptions (for nine on the year) and a fumble recovery which was caused by Davis Grove. "If they were going to give us second chances we had to take advantage of them, and that's what we started to do."

Thomas Johnson finally got its offense into gear on its next possession, starting on its own 10-yard line and pounding the ball all the way down the field. That drive was revived by a 24-yard pass from Heath Dahlgren to Nico Johnson to the 7-yard line on third and 15.

The Patriots spent six-and-a-half minutes on the drive and gained six first downs, making it easily their most productive possession of the game.

Six-foot, 225-pound running back Brandon Berney, who gained 47 yards on that drive, capped things off with a 1-yard TD run on 4th and goal from the one. He finished the game with 19 carries for 91 yards (4.8 per carry) and two TDs.

Berney "was a big kid and he lined up pretty deep in the backfield," Davis said. "Once he gets a full head of steam going, if you don't get any penetration he's pretty tough to bring down because he's pretty fast, too. Our D-line especially in the second half did a great job of making penetration, getting into the backfield, and that led to some disruption and they started fumbling the ball."

River Hill's next drive almost ended when Vaughn's pass was intercepted by Danny Medina, but Lawson stripped the ball away on the return to give the Hawks a first down at midfield.

River Hill didn't capitalize on the next drive, failing to convert a fourth down and five situation from the Thomas Johnson 18-yard line, but when the defense forced a three-and-out and Evan Griffin returned the Patriots punt 15 yards to the 36-yard line, the Hawks were back in business.

Griffin made a leaping catch between two defenders, landing on the two-yard line, and two plays later Aaron Wells ran the ball in to give River Hill the lead.

Vaughn had attempted only 50 passes heading into the state championship game, but he's been a game changer as a ballcarrier.

"He's been such a big part of the turnaround since week four and he's a big key to our offense," Van Deusen said. "Any time you have a quarterback who can run the ball it's just that extra dimension that makes it tough for the defense to prepare for, and especially tonight, he was giving us some big plays outside."

Thomas Johnson answered with another strong drive, but it ended when Lawson intercepted a Dahlgren pass in the end zone for a touchdown saving touchback with only a minute left in the half.

The aggressive Hawks tried to score again, as Griffin and Wells rushed for gains of 10 and 31 yards, but time expired before River Hill could break into the red zone.

Both teams went into the locker room having played to a near deadlock in the first half, but in the final 24 minutes, the game was decidedly one-sided.

In the second half, River Hill scored 27 unanswered points to break the game wide open.

Although Wells (25 carries, 164 yards, 6.6 per carry) scored a 67-yard TD on the first drive of the third quarter to put his team ahead 20-7, it wasn't until a series of miscues late in the third quarter that the wheels truly started to wobble free for Thomas Johnson.

With less than four minutes remaining in that period, the Thomas Johnson defense forced a River Hill three-and-out. But a block in the back penalty on Evan Griffin's punt pinned the Patriots inside their own 20-yard line, and three plays later Lawson made his second interception of the game, which he returned to the 14-yard line. Five plays later Vaughn (17 carries, 97 yards, 3 TDs) scored on a short run, and things quickly unraveled for the Patriots, who turned the ball over on four consecutive possessions, three of them resulting in River Hill touchdowns.

"We preach the five keys to victory and that's the No. 1 is to win the turnover battle," Davis said. "Especially in the playoffs turnovers are huge. We held onto the ball tonight and they didn't."

In addition to Lawson's three takeaways, Justin Arn intercepted a pass, and Davis Grove, Stephan Osong, Logan Kirby and Emmet Brew all recovered fumbles.

Thomas Johnson didn't get on the board again until only two minutes remained, when Berney scored from seven-yards out after River Hill had sent most of its reserves out onto the field with an insurmountable lead.

Since losing back-to-back games in mid-September — to Atholton on Sept. 16 and Hammond a week later, the first time in a decade River Hill lost consecutive games — the Hawks have won ten in a row while outscoring the opposition 381-66, including a 21-12 win over Atholton in the 3A East regional championship.

River Hill, which opened in 1996, played for its first state title in 2006, losing to Friendly in the 3A state title game. The Hawks then won back-to-back 2A state championships in 2007 and 2008, against Eastern Tech.

"This might be the most special one from where we came from at 2-2," Van Deusen said. "We were pretty down after that Hammond game and to rattle of ten games in a row is really special. This is a great group of guys here, these seniors led the way."

Thomas Johnson competes in the Frederick County league and was playing for its first state championship since 1997. (The Patriots won their only title in 1982.) Coached by 26-year veteran Ben Wright, Thomas Johnson has made the playoffs every fall since 2006, advancing to the 4A state semifinals in 2007 and 2009.

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After starting the season 5-0, Thomas Johnson lost three straight, to league foes Walkersville (2A), Middletown (2A) and Linganore (3A), before rebounding to go on a five-game winning streak through the state semifinals.

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In the first half of the state championsip, the Patriots were penalized once for five yards. In the second half they were penalized 10 times for 111 yards.

"We're our worst enemy ... we just lost our composure and our poise," said Wright, who announced his retirement before the state tournament. "Early in the first half we went after them pretty good. We just let down ... some of our kids lost their composure right away and it snowballed and that's unfortunate ... I'm just disappointed that we didn't play as well as we could. When we play well we're pretty good, you can see some sparks sometimes when we make a play or two."

Not bigger, but better

Leading up to the state championship game, much was made of the advantage in size that Thomas Johnson held, especially among the linemen. The average Patriots player was two inches and more than  ten pounds heavier than his Hawks rival. But on Saturday night, River Hill did everything it could to prove that size isn't everything.

"We've been hearing about how they're bigger than us, they're stronger than us, we're outmatched by them," said 6-foot, 240-pound defensive end Karrs Johnson, a senior captain. "It pushed us harder. There was no way we were going to go out there and let them stomp all over us and prove them all right."

In the game, River Hill's offensive line cleared the way for 316 rushing yards and 6 TDs, while the defensive line helped hold Thomas Johnson to 174 rushing yards and ravaged the Patriots for eight turnovers.

"We left it all out there ... us five came together, no fighting, just working together as a unit and it really came together and we won the game," Johnson said. "It's about heart. It's about who wants it more. We have a guy on our line right now who's just barely pushing 200, he's about 5'8" (Reinner Malenab), tiny little guy but he starts on varsity over guys bigger than him because he works hard, he works at it and he wants it."

River Hill hasn't had many 6-foot-5, 300 pounders, but in recent years their line play has been impeccable, thanks in large part to line coach Tom Gruneberg.

"Even though we're not the biggest we use our quickness and our technique and some of our schemes to our advantage," Van Deusen said.

A win for Howard County

In the first two rounds of the playoffs, River Hill defeated Howard (29-0) and Atholton (21-12) by a combined score of 50-12. Against two non-Howard County foes in the state tournament, Aberdeen (41-7) and Thomas Johnson (41-13), the Hawks outscored the competition by a much larger margin, 82-20.

"We talked about how Howard County was going to be one of the power counties this year in football," senior Randall Lawson said. "Usually people overlook us but you had Glenelg in the 2A, they were pretty strong this year and they're a team of juniors so they'll be strong again next year, then Atholton, they looked amazing. They resembled us back in 07-08. They just dominated so we knew it was going to be a battle and if we could get through the county that we'd look really good for the playoffs."

While the playoff game against Atholton was for the regional championship, it turned out to be a much more competitive game than the state championship.

"People were saying that if we won that game we'd be state champs ... (but) we still had to give everything we had and not take anyone for granted and that's what we did," Lawson said. "The Atholton game was big. I feel that if we hadn't beaten them they might be in the same position we are getting interviewed and being state champs and celebrating."

New classification, same result

Although River Hill won its third state title on Saturday night, it was the first championship in the 3A classification for the Hawks. In 2007 and 2008, River Hill was classified as a 2A school.

"We tried to use that as a little motivation. The other ones were in 2A even though at that point with the teams we had we could have beaten anybody ... but it was neat to get it in the 3A to get some of the big boys, the tough teams that are always up there," Van Deusen said. "The way we've been playing these last nine weeks is as well as anybody in the state."

Quintuple threat

River Hill will graduate many stars from the 3A state championship team this spring, but one player who will be back — junior Evan Griffin — can help fill a lot of holes. On Saturday night, the multitalented Griffin rushed for 37 yards and a TD, completed a 27-yard pass, caught a 34 yard pass, returned a punt and two kickoffs for 47 yards and made a 39-yard punt.

Griffin, whose older brothers Ryan and Jordan starred for River Hill before him, is also an excellent baseball player.

Other underclassmen who performed well for the Hawks on Saturday were juniors Stephan Osong (fumble recovery) and Justin Arn (interception) and sophomore Logan Kirby (fumble recovery).

Super sub

Late in the game River Hill's outstanding defensive back, Randall Lawson, was briefly sidelined with a minor injury. Star running back Aaron Wells — who typically only plays on offense and missed some time earlier this year with a knee injury — went in for Lawson and helped break up a pass. That move further proved that Wells has fully recovered from his early season woes, and will be ready to hit the ground running when he heads to Villanova next year.

TJ (10-4)  0 7   0   6 - 13
RH (12-2) 7 7 13 14 - 41

First quarter
RH: Vaughn 8 run (Grove kick), 6:31.

Second quarter
TJ: Berney 1 run (Dahlgren kick), 11:57.
RH: Wells 1 run (Grove kick), 4:00.

Third quarter
RH: Wells 63 run (kick failed), 11:00.
RH: Vaughn 2 run (Grove kick), :13.

Fourth quarter
RH: Griffin 12 run (Grove kick), 11:55.
RH: Vaughn 11 run (Grove kick), 4:49.
TJ: Berney 7 run (pass failed), 2:00.

Leading rushers
TJ: Berney, 19 carries, 91 yards, 2 TDs; Sponyoe, 3-46; Anderson, 10-42; Team, 33-174.
 RH: Wells, 25-164, 2 TDs; Vaughn, 17-97, 3 TDs; Griffin, 6-37, TD; Bennett, 3-19; Team, 54-316.

Leading passers
TJ: Dahlgren, 8 completions, 22 attempts, 148 yards, 3 INTs.
RH: Vaughn, 1/3, 34, INT; Griffin, 1/1, 27.

Leading receivers
TJ: Hairston, 3-90; Johnson, 1-24; Petrill, 2-20; Sponyoe, 1-10; Anderson, 1-4.
RH: Griffin, 1-34; Kinkead, 1-27.

Leading kick/punt returners

TJ:

Anderson, 2-42; Johnson, 2-14; McClain, 1-13.

RH:

Griffin, 3-47; Lawson, 2-12.

Penalties
TJ: 11-116
RH: 6-50

Turnovers
TJ: 8 (5 fumbles, 3 INTs)
RH: 3 (2 fumbles, 1 INT)

First downs
TJ: 15
RH: 20

Third-down efficiency
TJ: 5/12
RH: 5/9

Fourth-down efficiency
TJ: 2/2
RH: 1/3

Time of possession

TJ;

20:35

RH:

27:25

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