Long Reach's football players embraced on the sideline and emptied the water cooler on Coach Pete Hughes in the final seconds of the last game of the regular season Friday night.
The players were celebrating more than a 22-19 victory over Mount Hebron and a school-record ninth win of the season; they were cheering the school's first trip to the playoffs since 1997.
"Right now, I'd be telling our kids when to turn their uniform and equipment in because our season would be over," Hughes said with a smile. "It's finally over: Seven years of watching the playoffs from the stands, and now we get to be a part of it."
River Hill and Glenelg are also a part of the postseason march to the state championship, which begins tomorrow and Saturday with first-round play in region tournaments.
Advancing to the playoffs will be new to Long Reach players, but River Hill qualified for the second consecutive year, and Glenelg earned its fifth consecutive berth.
Sixty-four Maryland public schools advanced to the football playoffs, 16 from each enrollment-based classification (4A, 3A, 2A and 1A). Within each classification, there are four region tournaments, played in single-elimination format. The four region winners then advance to a state tournament for each classification. Postseason berths are determined by a complex point system created by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. Teams are awarded points for regular season 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 system also awards points for victories over teams with good records.
Two-time Howard County champion River Hill (10-0) earned the top seed in the 3A East Region tournament and will host fourth-seeded Douglass (8-2) tomorrow at 7 p.m. In the region's other first-round game, third-seeded Long Reach (9-1) will travel to Brandywine on Saturday to face defending region champion and second-seeded Gwynn Park (10-0) at 1 p.m.
In the 2A South Region tournament, second-seeded Glenelg (7-2) will host third-seeded Friendly (6-3) tomorrow at 7, with top-seeded Potomac (10-0) hosting fourth-seeded Southern (5-5) on Saturday.
For the third consecutive season, the county had three teams qualify for the postseason. The county just missed sending four teams for the first time, as Mount Hebron (8-2) would have earned the fourth seed in the 3A East Region tournament had Douglass lost to Friendly this past Saturday.
Howard County has no 4A schools and did not qualify any teams for the 1A playoffs.
This week's winners will meet next weekend for a berth in the state tournament, which begins on Nov. 26 and ends the week of Dec. 2 with state finals at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
"We spent the weekend enjoying going undefeated and winning the county title, but now that's all behind us," River Hill senior running back Tyler Martin said. "Now, we're focusing on the playoffs because every game could be your last. Every team has the same goal, and that's to win the state title."
Recent history, however, suggests that Howard teams will have a difficult time achieving that goal. No county 3A team has won a postseason game since Wilde Lake won the state title in 1997, and no Howard 2A team has reached the state final in 14 years. The county's last state championship was a 1A title won by Oakland Mills in 1998.
"But that's also what makes Howard County teams so dangerous to play, because people don't think they're that good, and they don't have to worry about playing them," said Gwynn Park Coach Danny Hayes. "But I've seen them, and that's not true. Everyone thinks that since we're from Prince George's County, that we're supposed to win, so we have the bull's-eye on our back. Everyone's season comes down to one game, and anything can happen."