The foundation for success this season for top-ranked Damascus is relatively simple in theory: Find an opponent's greatest strength and take it away.
So it should come as little surprise to anyone what Damascus plans on accomplishing against Old Mill tomorrow in the Maryland 4A semifinals: Slow down running back Ryan Callahan and let everything else fall into place.
It has worked before, as the Swarmin' Hornets (12-0) have had success this season against some of the county's top running backs, including Northwest's Anthony King, Sherwood's Brian Gunderman, Whitman's Pat Lazear and Quince Orchard's Bani Gbadyu.
The Hornets know that Callahan, who has rushed for 1,800 yards this season, will have some degree of success on the ground. They were exposed to his big-play ability during a preseason scrimmage against the Patriots (10-2) during which Callahan broke free for a long touchdown run.
"There's probably nobody at that level that we've seen, but we've faced some pretty good backs so we're not too worried," Damascus Coach Dan Makosy said. "We know we're not going to hold him to zero yards. We want to keep him from breaking the big one and make Old Mill work down the field."
The thinking is that if the Hornets can contain Callahan, it will play into what has worked all season long for them -- running the football and chewing up the clock.
Running backs Steven Anderson and Kyle Hogan combined for 117 rushing yards in a 21-14 win over No. 12 Quince Orchard on Friday night during the 4A West Region final. They did their best work in the third quarter, when Anderson scored two touchdowns and Quince Orchard had only three offensive plays.
"We just said to each other, if we can't drive it here we don't deserve to be here," Hogan said. "We just need to keep our feet moving, everyone needs to stay with their blocks and just pound it -- go with the flow and do what we do."
The only team to reach the 4A semifinals in each of the last four seasons, the Hornets are rolling along in what has turned into a season-long mission to return to the 4A title game for the third straight time.
Damascus has defeated a ranked opponent four times this year, and it displayed a measure of late-game composure during a frantic fourth quarter against Quince Orchard that had rarely been tested this season.
"Experience in big games, that's what it comes down to. These guys don't get rattled," Anderson said. "Bend but don't break is how we work. As a defensive player you want to be in that situation."
Sherwood's Big Test
Sherwood enters its 4A semifinal against No. 5 Douglass loaded with state playoff experience -- but only on the sideline.
Coach Al Thomas and assistant Terry Changuris have won a combined 14 state titles, but for the players on the roster, this postseason has been their first. So far, the inexperience has proven to be of little consequence as the No. 6 Warriors rolled through the 4A North region by knocking off Parkville and Perry Hall by a combined 87-0.
However, neither of those teams seemingly measure up to Saturday's opponent, Douglass (12-0), which has proven to be the cream of always competitive Prince George's County, and boasts among the area's most dynamic offenses and stingiest defenses.
In its 45-30 4A South final victory over C.H. Flowers on Saturday, Douglass yielded almost as many points as it had all season entering the game (37). The Eagles feature four players with at least 350 yards rushing and five touchdowns each -- including quarterback Davon Gray, who has more than 1,000 all-purpose yards and 20 total touchdowns.
"We haven't seen anything like them," Thomas said. "They have tremendous speed that we won't come even close to matching. . . . They are such a big-play team that if we miss a tackle or an assignment, we are very likely to get scored on."
Sherwood, too, has shown an ability to convert a big play. The Warriors have scored at least 40 points in all but two of their games this season -- including five straight entering Saturday.
At the heart of their success has been the connection between junior quarterback Deontay Twyman -- who just turned 16 last week -- and senior wide receiver Ben Everett. Everett is the Washington area's leading receiver with 1,237 yards; he has tallied at least 107 yards in each of Sherwood's past six games -- including a combined 358 in two postseason games.
However, simply keying on Everett, Thomas said, is not enough to shut down the Warriors' offense.
"We throw the ball to people other than Ben," Thomas said. "Ben has terrific hands, he was second in the county in receiving last year and he is one year older and a little better. But I think they are at risk if they try and double-cover him, because we have other guys who can catch the ball and a running back [Brian Gunderman] who can run the ball."