Arundel football came into the fall with the motto “state semis or better.”
They got the semifinal win; now, they’re one fateful step away from “better.”
Friday at 7:30, the Wildcats, the last Anne Arundel County team standing will face North Point in the Class 4A/3A state final. Arundel is the first county team to play in a state final since Old Mill in 2014 and will try to be the first to win one since Old Mill in 2011.
“Everyone doubted us in the beginning and look where we are now,” senior cornerback Avery Struve said. “We’re at the states. As a team, we all knew we had the capability of doing it. It was about proving it to the people outside the 60 on our team.”
Even as cold wind set into Tuesday’s practice, the players showed warmth to each other, laughing through drills. Their confidence in each other has certainly been earned through their 10-2 record — even in defeats.
The Wildcats were aware of how outsiders mocked them for scheduling nationally-ranked St. Frances for their final regular season game, even more so when they fell, 50-0. But score aside, Arundel wanted this. Facing a team of that power showed them a truth.
“I think seeing a team of that caliber really helped us in our playoff run,” linebacker Cam Neiswender said. “Obviously, we never saw a team as good as they were ever again.”
Arundel last captured a football championship in 1975, but coach Jack Walsh attests its strong football culture has endured over the decades since. Walsh journeyed to the 4A championship as the “lowest” coach on the Arundel staff in 2007, where the Wildcats fell to Quince Orchard. Ever since then, he and his staff that remained put all their focus into getting back.
“I think the surprising, surreal feeling is the nature with which we’ve done it,” Walsh said.
Arundel is playing without quarterback Gavin Kamachi who suffered a season-ending broken collarbone in the quarterfinal against Seneca Valley, just as he’d overcome broken fingers.
But skill positions are far from the only variable pieces. Seven players have compiled Arundel’s offensive line in playoff games. Two freshmen and two sophomores make up a bulk of the line, along with just two upperclassmen — senior Cam Gilman and junior Kaiden Harding. Arundel suffered losses all throughout the year, losing players to knee injuries and other ailments.
“We’re the walking wounded,” Walsh said. “Tape and bandaids, smoke and mirrors right now.”
Senior Ahmad Taylor never imagined he’d play quarterback until the state quarterfinal. When he watched Kamachi go down under a hulking Seneca Valley defender, Taylor waited for him to pop up. When he didn’t, realization settled around the running back’s head like bright lights.
“When they told me at halftime, I didn’t really believe it,” Taylor said. “It didn’t feel real. Once we had that first drive and we scored, that’s when it settled down.”
Calling and reading plays is still something new to Taylor. He calls upon his experience as a receiver for ones he’s not as familiar with. In the end, the way that Taylor’s been able to step up under center is not because of what he can do, but what his teammates do for him. Even Kamachi does it now, dressed in a Kelly green hoodie instead of pads, but walking through practice with his teammates on Tuesday night.
When Taylor fumbled the ball in the semifinal against Dundalk, his teammates picked him up.
“Defense got stops. O-line started moving people even more and we eventually scored,” Taylor said. “This week, we’re probably going to just keep trying to push and motivate each other because it’s going to get tough.
“We just have to be there for each other.”
Walsh didn’t know for sure how that arrangement would fare against Dundalk last Friday. Taylor accounted for most of Arundel’s 106 offensive yards, rushing for 81.
There’s no unknowns now. Film study will alert North Point to Arundel’s personnel and game plan. Arundel will utilize Andre Dotson, who’d stepped in as backup quarterback briefly in the Seneca Valley game before also succumbing to injury. They’ll probably throw the ball “more than five times,” Walsh joked.
But there’s no tricks up their sleeves, the coach said, but one: consistency. A simple, clean offense in a matchup Walsh anticipates to be incredibly close.
“We’re not coming in looking like a traditional Arundel offense looks,” Walsh said. “The key is going to be to run the ball, control the clock, take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves — and not do anything that puts our defense in a bad position.”
Before Arundel faced Dundalk, Walsh presumed the defense that limited Seneca Valley to 2 rushing yards would play an even bigger role. The Wildcats tackled Owls ball-handlers 37 times last Friday, limiting the prolific offensive team to a mere 42 rushing yards in the shutout.
Arundel’s run defense is solid enough to handle North Point, too, senior linebacker Abraham Olugbemi said. The safeties like to hit. The defensive backs like to cover the run and pass. If the defensive line enacts pressure against opposing offenses, their defensive backs trust them to step back. If the linebackers play off the defensive line, as they like to do, the quarterback “crumbles.”
“They call us the hit squad for a reason,” Olugbemi said.
Over five years, defensive coordinator Evan Jones has wired the defense into the unified battalion that it’s become, Walsh said. Neiswender believes it’s the coachability of him and his teammates that’s leant itself to be molded into a fine-tuned machine.
Olugbemi said it truly began in summer workouts; those who overcame difficult exercises were stronger for it, and stronger together still.
“We treat everything like we’re family,” Olugbemi said. “We go through a lot of stuff together outside of school, inside of school, we go together.”
Watching North Point’s film, Walsh sees a team that operates similarly to how his team does now without Kamachi. Walsh muses North Point doesn’t offer as much size as Seneca Valley or Dundalk, but makes up for it in speed. Dover and Smyrna — two Delaware teams currently competing for titles that the Wildcats split with this season — were the most comparable opponents Arundel played.
“I think our offense is just going to have to perform like they did. Get a couple points,” Neiswender said. “And if the defense played like they played again, I think it could go our way.”
CLASS 4A/3A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP
Arundel vs. North Point
Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
Friday, 7:30 p.m.