The last time Paint Branch and Gaithersburg met in a football contest was on a non-descript Oct. night in 2010, when the Panthers and the Trojans were both in the middle of winning seasons. Three years later, both teams are enjoying their most succesful campaigns to date, and both are focused on building momentum heading into the postseason.
Both teams hope their postseason journey will end in four weeks at the 4A state title game at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, but there’s still plently at stake in Saturday’s regular-season finale at Walter Johnson. It begins what could be a four-game race to the 4A title game, and it won’t be a nonchalant affair. Both the No. 17 Trojans (8-1) and No. 19 Panthers (8-1) still have plenty at stake. Gaithersburg (8-1) can still clinch the top seed in the Maryland 4A West region with a win and a Quince Orchard loss to Wootton. Paint Branch (8-1) is locked in as a top-two seed in the 4A South region, but can earn the No.1 spot with a win and a Perry Hall loss.
Northwest’s win over Quince Orchard last week changed the complexion of the Trojans’ regular-season finale against the Panthers, Gaithersburg Coach Kreg Kephart said. With a win against Springbrook and a Gaithersburg loss, the Jaguars would leapfrog the Trojans in the playoff standings.
“There was a time last week,” Kephart said, “before Northwest beat Q.O., I thought it would be a pretty meaningless game [against Paint Branch]. It sort of put a jumble in everything. . . we’re certainly hoping to get home field.”
Gaithersburg methodically dismantled Walter Johnson 43-0 last week, behind Xaviyer Mosley’s 109 yards and four touchdowns on just 10 carries. Mosley has carried just 25 times in the last three weeks, but has produced when he has recieved touches; 248 yards in that span, including five touchdowns. He has assumed the feature back role since the middle of September, when Trojans star Solomon Vault went down with a leg injury against Clarksburg. Vault won’t play against Paint Branch, and on Thursday said via text message that he will find out Friday if he is medically cleared to play in the postseason.
Still, Gaithersburg has been able to maintain a semblance of a running game, a product of keeping the core of its line healthy. Kephart credits the durability of two-way linemen Avery Taylor, Tinashe Gwashavamhu and Anthony Combs. Taylor and Combs will both play in this winter’s annual Maryland Crab Bowl game.
The Gaithersburg defensive front will have a unique challenge Friday night against the run-and-gun Panthers. Paint Branch put on an offensive clinic in last week’s playoff-clinching win over Sherwood. Quarterback Gaston Cooper passed for 242 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 91 yards and three more scores. He even caught a touchdown pass from Johnny Littlejohn, who added a kick return for a touchdown. Senior wide reciever Javonn Curry added four catches for 142 yards for the Panthers, who are averaging 42.2 points per game this season.
Kephart said suppressing the big play will be key, especially against Cooper, whom he called the best quarterback in the county.
“He’s the best on film I’ve seen. He might not be the best runner, he might not be the best passer, but when you combine the two. . . he keeps me up at night,” Kephart said. “No matter how the game comes out, we gotta get ready for next week.”
Just hours after Quince Orchard lost to Northwest last week, senior Elliott Davis sat in the Cougars film room on Saturday morning and waited to review the game. It was the quietest the quarters had been all season long, he said. But it was also the most focused.
The Cougars still control their own path in the Maryland 4A playoffs. They can still capture the No. 1 seed in the 4A bracket when they visit Wootton in the regular season finale for both schools on Friday night. And they still have control of how they respond to last week’s shocker, in which they gave up more points (35) than they had in their previous eight games combined (26) this season. It was just the 17th loss of Coach Dave Mencarini’s 10-year career at the school, and just the third conference loss in that span.
“I think my team’s response has been prolific in the sense that, obviously it is a rarity for us to lose in the regular season,” Davis said.“I think we’ve handled it in the best and most appropriate way possible as a team, because all it’s done is brought us tighter and made us more focused on our goal.”
That goal, of course, is returning to the 4A championship game for a third consecutive season. Home field advantage throughout the playoffs would help, which makes Friday’s contest against the Patriots (5-4, 4-1) one of the most important games of the season. Wootton, winners of two straight after a three-game losing streak in the middle of the season, needs a win and some help to have a chance at a postseason berth. Quarterback Sam Ellis threw for a new Maryland single-game record with more than 500 yards and six touchdowns in a win over Rockville last week, and the Cougars are well aware of his ability, Davis said. Shutting down the pass is a top priority after last week, when Jaguars sophomore Mark Pierce threw for four touchdowns.
“[Wootton] has some very talented playmakers. We’re very aware of that,” said Davis, who earlier this week added North Carolina State to a long list of scholarship offers. “We don’t fear anyone.”