River Hill's Kevin Magan saw Severna Park quarterback Greg Zingler's pass spiraling toward a receiver near the sideline and knew he had a chance to end a frustrating day for the Hawks' defense.
The senior cornerback cut to his left and intercepted the pass and was soon mobbed by celebrating teammates for a play that secured a 34-28 victory and the first 3A East Region tournament title in school history.
River Hill's defense was dominated by Severna Park for much of the game, allowing four touchdowns, the most the Hawks had given up this season. But Magan's play ensured that one of the Hawks' finest offensive performances of the season did not go to waste.
River Hill rushed for 237 yards on 36 carries -- an average of 6.5 yards an attempt -- and five touchdowns, but none of that mattered until Magan ended any hopes of a comeback with his third interception of the season.
"The game was on the line, and they were driving, and we needed to make a play to win the game," Magan said. "Our coaches put us in position to make the play. It was my job to take away that part of the field, and that's where the ball went, and I saw it and got my hands on it."
The play gave River Hill something that eluded it the past two years: the region plaque. And it represented a big accomplishment for Howard County high school football.
"No one really respects Howard County football," junior quarterback Daniel Hostetler said. "So we needed to prove that there are good football teams in our county and that we can beat good teams."
Since Wilde Lake defeated Thomas Johnson, 7-0, to win the 3A title in 1997, the county's 3A teams have gone a combined 0-7 in the playoffs against teams from outside the county.
River Hill lost in the first round of the past two 3A East Region tournaments -- to Prince George's County's Gwynn Park and Douglass -- by a combined 38 points.
"This is huge for our county," River Hill Coach Brian Van Deusen said. "In the past few years, I think the level of football has gotten a lot better, but we haven't had that much success in the playoffs, so for us to come in here and win at Severna Park is a big step."
River Hill has a chance to take an even bigger step Saturday. The Hawks (11-1) will travel to Brandywine to face No. 4 Gwynn Park (12-0), which has outscored its opponents 383-116, with four shutouts. The winner advances to the state final Dec. 10 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
In the teams' last meeting, in 2003, Gwynn Park outscored River Hill 49-7 in the final three quarters to cruise to a 49-21 win.
"The only thing I remember about that game is how big and fast they were," said senior linebacker Peter Ridge. "I know they will be big and strong and fast this year, too. But we're not intimidated. We know they are not gods. They can be beaten like any team. We believe we have what it takes to win."
Successful Season Ends
Atholton Coach Chuck Fales heaped praise on his football team after a season-ending 12-0 loss to visiting Potomac last weekend, saying his team exceeded expectations just by advancing to the 2A South Region final.
"I'll be honest, if someone would have said to me that we'd be in the region final with a chance to go to the state tournament this year, I wouldn't have believed them," he told his players. "What you guys did this season was amazing."
Atholton won just five games combined the previous four seasons but finished 8-4 for its first winning season since 1996. The Raiders made their first postseason appearance in 20 years and earned their first playoff victory ever with a semifinal win over McDonough on Nov. 18.
Still, tears flowed as players left the field after the game.
"We always talked about what it would be like to make the playoffs," senior lineman Aras Vaitkus said. "But to feel what it's really like to make it is something I'll never forget. It hurts because we had our chances to win and keep our season going, but it just wasn't our night."
Defending state champion Potomac (10-2) scored touchdowns in the first and third quarters and did not allow the Raiders past the Wolverines' 38-yard line.
The Raiders had chances, though. They lost two fumbles and dropped several passes that would have put them in scoring position and never found any offensive rhythm.
"This one hurts really bad because we had our chances," junior quarterback Brett McQuilkin said. "The game came down to a few plays, and they made them. We knew coming in here the winner of this game was probably going to win the state title.
"Potomac is a great team, and we wish them well."