For the first time in county history, four teams -- Glenelg, Long Reach, Mount Hebron and River Hill -- have started the football season 6-0 and are in control of earning a spot in the region playoffs.
"I think from now on, every game you play is a playoff game because you are playing to continue the season," Mount Hebron Coach Larry Luthe said. "You have to win every game because if you look at how many teams have a shot of getting in the playoffs, if you lose more than one game, then you might not make it."
Four teams advance to each of four region tournaments in each enrollment-based classification, based on a complex point system created by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. Teams are awarded points for victories based on the opponents' classification. So a 2A school would receive more points for a victory over a larger, 3A school than it would for a school in its own classification. The point system also awards points for victories over teams with good records.
Glenelg is one of 13 teams in the 2A South Region, including playoff contenders Potomac (6-0), Forestville (4-2), Friendly (4-2) and Southern (3-3). Long Reach, Mount Hebron and River Hill, which have yet to face each other, are among 10 teams in the strong 3A East Region, which also includes Gwynn Park (6-0) and Douglass (5-1) of Prince George's County.
So it's possible that if several Howard teams tie for the county title, at least one squad could be left out of the postseason because some victories came against smaller schools.
"Somebody in our county is going down, and that's a shame, but that's the way it is," Glenelg Coach John Davis said. "Right now, the county title is secondary compared to the playoffs because that's what you live for. The county title is nice, but it's just not the playoffs."
Three-time defending champion Glenelg has made the playoffs in each of the past four seasons and is counting on its running game to extend both streaks this year.
Glenelg has averaged a county-high 341 rushing yards per game and also has six touchdown passes by senior quarterback Justin Field.
But Glenelg is inexperienced, with just four seniors who play regularly, a disadvantage against the county's other top teams, all of which have far more seniors on their rosters.
River Hill has ridden the arm of senior quarterback Ben Hostetler to its best start in school history. Hostetler threw a career-high four touchdown passes in a 40-6 victory over Reservoir on Friday.
Hostetler also has a school-record eight interceptions at safety, leading a defense that allows an average of 5.5 points per game.
"Before the season, we all pretty much knew we had the chance to be good," said Hostetler, whose team earned a share of the county title and made the playoffs for the first time last year. "But now, we definitely know we're good."
Long Reach, which has not made the playoffs since 1997, is also off to its best start in school history. The Lightning changed to a single-wing offense, in which four players line up behind the center and any can be used as the quarterback. Only five Washington area teams employ the single-wing.
The switch has created room for running backs Keith Richardson and Emanuel Candendo and increased the time of possession for the offense. Long Reach's defense has taken care of the rest, allowing just 26 points this season, stingiest in the county.
Luthe acknowledged that Mount Hebron has not played particularly well at times, but it has been able to win.
"It seems like every week they do something to give me a heart attack," he said. "But if that's the way it has to be for us to win, then it pays off."
The Vikings boast two of the county's top three running backs in seniors Brendan Clancy (589 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Chris Eccleston (532 yards, six TDs). Senior quarterback Kyle Barnett has been stellar in close games, leading four, fourth-quarter comeback wins in two seasons, including Friday's victory against Howard.
"We know how to win big, we know how to win small, but we just can't win pretty," Barnett said. "We were in this position last year, we needed to win a bunch of games at the end of the season to make the playoffs, and we did it. So we know what it takes, which is something other teams haven't been through."
Wilde Lake and Howard each entered the season with high expectations, yet both have suffered several close losses that all but eliminated them from playoff contention.
The Wildecats lost to Long Reach, 17-14, on a field goal with under a minute remaining on Sept. 11. A more heart-wrenching loss came Friday, when the Wildecats were leading Glenelg by three with 25 seconds remaining. Glenelg blocked a punt and took over on the Wilde Lake 2-yard line. On the next play, quarterback Field found Blake Mullinix in the corner of the end zone for the winning touchdown.
Wilde Lake's best news has been junior fullback Jarad Flagg, who has rushed for 390 yards and six touchdowns on 35 carries in his first year as a varsity starter.
Howard (1-5) could easily be 3-2, according to several county coaches, who have been impressed with quarterback Ronnie Curley and running back Vincent Coleman.
"I still think Howard is a very good team and has some great athletes," Luthe said. "We were fortunate to come out on top. They do not play like a team that has won just one game."
The Lions squandered a 16-point lead to Oakland Mills in a 26-16 season-opening loss and, against Glenelg, had what would have been a winning touchdown pass broken up in the end zone in a 21-18 loss.
Against Mount Hebron on Friday, Howard took a 21-20 lead with under five minutes remaining, but the Vikings marched down the field and took the lead for good on Clancy's five-yard touchdown run.
"This was a game we should not have lost," Howard Coach David Glenn said after the last loss. "We have to start winning games sometime because we've had so many heart-breaking losses where we don't make one or two plays and it costs us the game."
Wait Until Next Year
Though Reservoir (2-4) is much improved from the squad that did not win a game last season, the Gators are still going through growing pains in their second varsity season. All four losses have been to the county's undefeated teams, by a combined 137-20.
Last year, Oakland Mills (1-5) won seven games and a spot in the 1A South Region playoffs before forfeiting its season because of an ineligible player. This season it is off to its worst start since 1992. Though Oakland Mills boasts the county's top receiver -- Kevin Beaman (15 catches, 452 yards, six TDs) -- it has struggled adjusting to first-year coach Dick Hendershott's Wing-T offense.
Hammond (1-5) picked up its first victory of the season against Atholton, 30-14, on Saturday and has a bright future behind junior quarterback Zach Swope, who has completed 43 of 100 passes for 559 yards with three touchdowns.
Centennial and Atholton are winless. Centennial, like Long Reach, adopted the single-wing offense this season but with far different results. Centennial averages just 9.4 points per game, and its undersized defense has yet to hold a team to fewer than 32 points.
Atholton senior running back Matt Winger has been the bright spot for his team, rushing for 458 yards and two touchdowns.