Overcoming adversity is nothing new for A.J. Wallace and his McDonough teammates. As their season has progressed, the Rams have had to survive with an offense primarily reliant on one option, Wallace, and a defense that has had to integrate five new starters.
On Friday night in their 2A South Region semifinal against Atholton, after the Rams had seen an early touchdown negated by a penalty and allowed the Raiders to build a 17-0 first-half advantage, they still believed they could get the job done.
They nearly did.
But after reeling off 19 straight points and taking a two-point lead on a Wallace touchdown run with a little more than nine minutes to play, the Rams' defense, which had struggled much of the season, was unable to stop Atholton's running game when it had to. The Raiders marched 86 yards on only five plays, with running back Patrick Hayden plowing in from six yards out to give Atholton the decisive score in the 24-19 win.
"You just can't play catch-up in the playoffs," said Wallace, who finished with 207 yards on 21 carries. "We came back enthused in the second half, but we just didn't play all four quarters."
The Rams (6-5) put themselves in a hole early. After their defense forced a punt on the Raiders' opening possession, Wallace took the opening handoff for McDonough off right tackle for what appeared to be a 59-yard run for a touchdown. But the Rams were called for a personal foul and ended up turning the ball over on downs. Atholton had built a 17-0 lead by the time Wallace opened the scoring for the Rams with a 95-yard kickoff return just before halftime.
McDonough continued its comeback in the third quarter, dominating possession before quarterback Jon Delozier found Preston Faulk for an 18-yard strike to narrow the gap to 17-13. Wallace's fourth-quarter run gave the Rams the lead, but McDonough would only see the ball for four more plays as Atholton effectively melted time off the clock behind the running of Matt Winger and quarterback Brett McQuilkin.
"We got ourselves in the hole against another good football team, and it's difficult to come out of that," said McDonough Coach David Bradshaw. "I thought we built some momentum, and we struggled back, but it just wasn't quite enough."
Despite the heroics of Wallace and a motivated defensive effort, the Rams were unable to control their opponent's running game; Atholton had a pair of 100-yard rushers. Winger led the Rams with 190 yards on 21 carries, and McQuilkin added 124 yards on 15 carries.
"We're mad that we didn't win the game, but at the same time we gave it everything we had," said senior Mike Allen, who had two sacks. "We just wanted to come in here and prove ourselves worthy."
As they walked off the field for the final time this season, the McDonough coaches continued to remind the players to keep their heads high and maintained that they couldn't have been prouder of their effort.
"These are just a bunch of good kids that fought against a lot of adversity," Bradshaw said. "They continued to fight through, they never gave up, and I'm very proud of them."