Paint Branch quarterback Gaston Cooper pitched the ball to Johnny Littlejohn on a routine running play inside the red zone Friday night against Sherwood, and unlike any other play up to that point, the Warriors’ defense stopped watching Cooper’s every move.
Instead, defenders all ran after Littlejohn. Cooper disappeared. He faded into the background, onto the back side of the line, and before Littlejohn reached the sideline he pulled up threwacross the field, to a wide open Cooper, for a 12-yard touchdown.
The score gave Paint Branch a three-touchdown lead right before the half, and it was a decisive blow. But it was more than that. On a night when wild plays became commonplace, it was Cooper’s ability to deceive that set him and his team apart.
The senior quarterback threw for 242 yards, rushed for another 91 and accounted for five touchdowns to lead the Panthers to a 55-21 victory over Sherwood on Friday night in a Montgomery 4A East game in Burtonsville.
Cooper scored at least once passing, rushing and receiving for Paint Branch (8-1, 5-0 Montgomery 4A East), which outlasted a hot start by Sherwood (6-3, 3-1) to clinch the division title and position itself for potential home-field advantage in the playoffs with a win in the regular season finale next week at Gaithersburg.
“[Sherwood] gave us a good test. It’s how it’s going to be down the road,” Cooper said. “Everything is not just going to be a blowout. It’s a good test for us and it felt good knowing that we could pull through.”
Cooper put Paint Branch up 7-0 early an 85-yard touchdown pass to Javonn Curry at the 7 minute 35 second mark of the first quarter, and both teams would combine for 35 points in the next three minutes. That included two electrifying plays by Littlejohn, who scored on a 41-yard run off a reverse and returned a kickoff 81 yards down to the Sherwood three-yard line that set up a Cooper touchdown run that made it 21-14 at the end of the first quarter.
Elijah Spottswood and Myanthony Starnes both had kickoff return touchdowns for Sherwood in the first half, but the Warriors couldn’t keep up. Aside from Cooper and Littlejohn’s trickery on the touchdown, the Panthers ran multiple misdirection plays. They tried onside kicks and they recovered a fumble for a touchdown.
“I mean, I can’t do it all by myself,” Cooper said. “I have to give all the credit to my line and to my wide receivers, who are called the ‘Bomb Squad.’ ”
Littlejohn isn’t a part of that apparatus, but he got in on the show with Cooper on Friday. So much has changed at Paint Branch in the past year — a new field, new weight room and training facility — and a new identity. Littlejohn said even new minor details — such as the coaches wearing yellow gloves on the sideline for better visibility with hand signals and a sign system to call plays — has made the team better.
“[The coaches] are starting to make this the best organization in Montgomery County,” Littlejohn said. “We can beat anybody.”