Mount Hebron's football team walked silently toward one end of the field, some fighting back tears, as River Hill players celebrated a 19-17 victory that left just one team undefeated and guaranteed them at least a share of the county title and a playoff berth.

"I think it shows how far both our teams have come," River Hill Coach Brian Van Deusen said. "I think anytime we play Mount Hebron it's a big game, but it's never been as big as this, and that's why it's pretty emotional for both teams."

Four years ago, Mount Hebron and River Hill both posted losing records and were well behind Wilde Lake, Glenelg and Oakland Mills in the county's football hierarchy. But now, if Mount Hebron defeats Long Reach tomorrow, it will join River Hill in the 3A East Region playoffs for a second consecutive season.

It would cement their status in the county's upper echelon -- beside Glenelg, a 2A school that has qualified for the playoffs for a county-record fifth consecutive year.

"If you look at us and River Hill, we are two very similar schools with the same type of kids, and both our football teams have gotten a lot better over the past few years," Mount Hebron Coach Larry Luthe said. "I think that's why there is such a rivalry between the two schools."

Mount Hebron and River Hill have in the past excelled in the same sports -- most notably boys' and girls' soccer, boys' and girls' basketball and wrestling -- and since both are in the 3A East Region, only one can advance to the state tournament.

"I remember when we lost to them in wrestling a few years ago in the region final in the state dual meet tournament, and it hurt so much because Mount Hebron went on to win the state title," said senior Ryan Deiter, whose 39-yard field goal with six minutes remaining proved to be the difference in the game this past Friday. "Losing to them cost us a state championship, and I'll never forget how that felt."

"When I was coaching girls' soccer at Mount Hebron a few years ago, beating River Hill was one of our biggest goals of the season," said Willie Ibarra, now the girls' soccer coach at River Hill. "Mount Hebron-River Hill is the same way as the Redskins and the Cowboys are in the NFL; it's just a huge game any time they play."

But until last week, the teams' meeting on the football field was less anticipated than those on the soccer field, basketball court or wrestling mat because both football teams had been less successful.

"When I became football coach here [in 1998], the people in the community said that you can't win in football at Mount Hebron because it's a soccer and girls' basketball school," said Luthe, who was quarterback the last time Mount Hebron reached the state tournament 24 years ago. "But when I played, we experienced what it was like to win big games, so to come in here, it's satisfying to see our team make it back to the playoffs because people said it couldn't be done. I'm sure it was the same way at River Hill."

Said Van Deusen, who took over the River Hill team in 2000: "I was never worried about our football team even though we were having a lot of success in other sports because we had a plan to build our program, and we always believed it would work. We knew we weren't going to get the recognition right away like Wilde Lake, who's been good for the last 15 years, but we knew our time would come."

Mount Hebron and River Hill's time came last year, when the Vikings' 23-20 victory over the Hawks propelled them to their first postseason appearance since 1982. River Hill clinched its first berth a week later.

"Last year was just the beginning because now both of our teams have high expectations, and we knew coming into the season the team that won this game had a good chance to win the county title and make the playoffs," Mount Hebron senior quarterback Kyle Barnett said. "It was going to be the biggest game of the season."

The Vikings appeared primed to post their third victory over the Hawks in the past four years after junior Chris Eccleston scored on a 60-yard touchdown run to give his team a 17-3 lead 55 seconds into the third quarter. But River Hill, which had not trailed in the second half this season, pulled to within 17-10 when senior Tyler Martin caught a 22-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Ben Hostetler with 4 minutes 12 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

The Hawks scored on their next possession, when Martin's seven-yard touchdown run closed the margin to 17-16 with 33 seconds left in the third quarter. Deiter missed the extra point, but he became the hero on the next possession. The Hawks drove 38 yards to set up Deiter's game-winning, 39-yard field goal.

"That was the biggest kick of my life," Deiter said. "There was no better feeling to see it go through the uprights because I knew we were going to win the biggest game of our season and beat Mount Hebron."

Ryan Deiter kicks the winning field goal for River Hill; Vikings Chris Eccleston (13), Derek Chell just miss blocking it. Ben Hostetler and his teammates celebrate River Hill's 19-17 victory over Mount Hebron. The Hawks are the last undefeated team in the county.