It's been more than nine months, but River Hill linebacker Finney Allen vividly remembers New Year's Day, a brisk afternoon in the woods that almost cost him his life.

Allen and five friends were racing all-terrain vehicles through the forest when his hit the side of small knoll at 55 mph, flinging him over the handlebars and onto the ground, crushing the right side of his face.

Allen remembers lying motionless face down and the blood that poured out of him as his friend and teammate, Kevin Biegel, held him on the ride to a friend's house to call for help.

"The top half of my body was just covered in blood -- it was like I was shot in the forehead," said Allen, 17, who was not wearing a helmet. "I didn't think about dying or anything at the time, but I knew I was in trouble."

"I remember holding Finney's head up when we were driving him back and I was just hoping he would make it, but it wasn't looking good," said Biegel, a senior center. "I knew I had to do everything I could to save his life."

Allen was flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, where he underwent surgery in which seven titanium plates were placed underneath his skin to reconstruct his face. Finney said it took approximately 50 stitches to close the gashes.

He spent 11 days in the hospital, reliving the accident and worrying about the future. What would his face look like? Would he play sports again? What would have happened had his friends not responded quickly enough?

"I was really depressed in the hospital because my head was the size of a basketball and I looked like Quasimodo, and when you're a football player and you have tubes stuck in your body to help you breathe, you don't want anyone to see you like that," Allen said.

"I couldn't really talk, so my friends left messages and I would listen to them at night. If the guys I was with that day left me in the woods and went to get help, I wouldn't have made it. They saved my life."

Nine months later, Allen's face is nearly healed. There's a two-inch scar above the right side of his lip and a nickel-sized indentation at the base of his throat where tubes were inserted to assist his breathing.

"Finney lost a lot of blood and got his bell rung pretty good and he could have lost his life," said Clifford H. Turen, chief of orthopedics at Shock Trauma and also the team's doctor. "But he's made a full recovery and is cleared to play sports."

And Allen is making the most of the opportunity. After playing primarily on special teams last year, Allen now is part of a defense that has allowed just three touchdowns in as many games, enabling the 2003 county co-champions to start the season 3-0 for the second consecutive year. The Hawks stopped Centennial twice on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line during their 35-13 victory Saturday.

"He's been a huge inspiration to us," said Tyler Martin, a senior running back and linebacker. "He came close to dying, but as soon as he got back to school, I asked him if he was going to come out for football and he said, 'I'm playing,' and some kids probably wouldn't even have tried out if they went through what Finney did."

Allen's emergence is just one of the reasons the Hawks enter tomorrow's game at Oakland Mills as one of the league's four undefeated teams. River Hill has rallied behind senior quarterback and safety Ben Hostetler, senior linebacker and place kicker Ryan Deiter and Martin.

Hostetler has thrown four touchdown passes and is the only county quarterback who has not thrown an interception. Martin is second in the county in rushing, with 368 yards, and has five touchdowns, tied for the county lead with Wilde Lake senior Nate Yarborough.

Sophomore Greg Nowak and John Pattillo each have eight catches for a combined 210 yards and two touchdowns, and Deiter has sent 12 of 14 kickoffs into the end zone.

The Hawks' schedule gets tougher. After facing Oakland Mills (1-2) tomorrow, River Hill meets three of the county's top teams in October: Wilde Lake (2-1), Long Reach (3-0) and Mount Hebron (3-0).

"The whole point of winning the games early was to get confidence for our team heading into the heart of our schedule," Deiter said.

"I think the first three games have shown us that we have the potential to play at a high level.

"We still have a lot of tough games coming up, but we're getting better each week, and I think we're showing we can be even better than we were last year."