One game stands between North County and nine years of history. One game stands between North County and a goal few thought it could achieve.
If North County can pull out a win tomorrow night over Meade, it will earn a 4A East Region playoff berth for the first time since 1996.
The Knights landed in this position after a 33-24 victory over Annapolis last week, coupled with a South River loss to Broadneck. The Knights made plays on offense, defense and special teams to get the win over a 3A opponent they hadn't beaten since 1996.
The lopsided history of the matchup showed in the reactions. Annapolis players slowly embraced each other in comfort. And the Knights? They ran, jumped and poured water over the coaches in celebration.
"This is a quality team," North County Coach Gary Liddick said of Annapolis, which had beaten the Knights by a combined 178 points the last four seasons. "This is one of the best teams in Anne Arundel County. We keep saying we gotta prove that we can play with these guys: the Arundels, the Annapolises and the Old Mills and those people. Tonight was our proving ground. Tonight we finally did it. We proved we could play with these guys."
Said third-year starter Maurice Royster: "It was the most vital point of our whole season. It was like Judgment Day."
The Knights (5-4, 5-4) started strong, recovering an onside kick on the opening kickoff. Though they couldn't convert a 32-yard field goal on the drive, the defense stepped up, forcing the Panthers to punt after three plays. The Knights caught a bit of luck on their first play of the ensuing drive, as senior quarterback Josh McQuade fluttered a pass to senior receiver Raymond Mack, who ran under the ball and took it for a 50-yard touchdown.
The Knights recovered yet another onside kick after the score and this time they converted, with McQuade throwing a bullet to senior receiver Matt Wever, who made a sliding catch in the end zone for the 13-yard score.
"The big thing was we got a lead on them," said Liddick. "They had to start playing catch-up, and they got out of their running game and had to start throwing the ball, which really isn't their game. Their game is power football."
The Panthers (6-3, 6-2) tried to battle back, but the Knights took advantage of most of their opportunities: converting on a punt fake, intercepting three passes and recovering a late-game fumble on a punt return.
"They were a team on the rise when we came in here," said Annapolis Coach Brian Brown. "We knew it would be a tough game."
"I think we underestimated them," said junior linebacker Jon Schwartz, who played a part in Annapolis's win over Old Mill a week earlier. "We ought to take people like this more seriously coming off a big win."
This season has been special for the Knights, as they've enjoyed a rise from the cellar of the league. They started the year 2-3 and trailed Chesapeake 13-0 before coming back to win that game 20-13, to reach .500 at the six-game mark for the first time in six years.
After beating Chesapeake, the Knights knocked off Broadneck, 3-0, the first time they had beaten the Bruins in eight years. Two weeks ago the Knights almost pulled an upset over Arundel, but the Wildcats scored with 38 seconds to play and won, 20-13. Still, the Knights earned some respect in the game, as Arundel Coach Chuck Markiewicz, who coached North County to a state title in 1994, told a North County coach after the game that the Knights were back as competitors in the league.
"They've come along pretty nicely," said Markiewicz. "It's been a couple years [since they've had a winning team] and it's been a struggle. [Liddick] is doing a really good job of getting them back. . . . They did something we couldn't do, and that's beat Annapolis."
Royster, a senior linebacker and right guard, sees the difference between this year and previous years in the team's leadership, dedication and unity.
And he also sees it in the talent spread throughout the team.
Royster leads the team with 60 tackles, followed by three players with at least 30 tackles. Senior linebacker and power running back Ryan Reyes leads the team with 93 rushes for 441 yards. Mack leads in receptions, catching 37 balls for 773 yards and 10 touchdowns. And senior Josh McQuade, a first-year quarterback who got his start in football last season as the kicker, has thrown for 1,211 yards, 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions on 77-of-184 passing.
"I think he's definitely stepped it up since the beginning of the season," said Royster of McQuade. "In the beginning of the season he was still learning. Now he's beginning to get more of a feel for it. He's throwing [fewer] interceptions, making better throws -- making better decisions, really. That's the real key right there."
With Meade up tomorrow and the playoffs once again on the line, McQuade hopes to again show his growth on the field. He thinks the key to tomorrow's game will be "staying focused, not feeling that the season is over. Keep proving to the county that we're back and competitive. We want to get up early and stay up and not look back."
For Annapolis, all hope is not lost in the 3A East Region playoff hunt. The Panthers can still make the playoffs with a win this weekend and a River Hill or Long Reach loss.
Severna Park will go to the playoffs in the 3A East Region, and Old Mill and Arundel have clinched berths in the 4A East Region. South River, which lost its right to enter the playoffs by losing to Broadneck, can reach the postseason with a win and a North County loss. The Seahawks also have a slight chance of getting in if they lose, should North County, Broadneck and Thomas Stone lose, by winning a close playoff point system battle.
Broadneck can make the playoffs if the Bruins win, if Thomas Stone loses and if they receive lots of help through the playoff points system.