For almost three quarters, River Hill seemed to hit harder, play smarter and make the plays it needed to become the first Howard County football team to reach a state championship game since Oakland Mills in 2001.
But football games last four quarters, and near the end of the third quarter, the Hawks' championship hopes disappeared in a haze of yellow and black as Gwynn Park stole the momentum with a forced fumble. The Yellow Jackets ran away with the game, scoring 21 straight points.
"You can't give a good team new life like we gave to them," said senior running back Nick Campanaro.
Gwynn Park forced a fumble moments before the third quarter ended and converted on a 21-yard touchdown pass. Then, in a role change, Gwynn Park, which had been penalized 16 times for 105 yards, capitalized on two River Hill penalties to force a punt. It marched down the field with the aid of a 15-yard face-mask penalty to score on a 1-yard run and take the lead, 24-21.
An interception and subsequent touchdown sealed the 30-21 loss.
"Well, we actually played really good," said Hawks sophomore linebacker Zach Martin. "The fourth quarter, unfortunately, didn't go too well. We knew we could play with them, but it's a shame things kind of fell apart at the end."
River Hill looked good from the beginning, but costly mistakes put it behind 9-0 as the Yellow Jackets ran a fumble back 84 yards for the game's first score and then sacked quarterback Daniel Hostetler for a safety.
But the Hawks stuck to a balanced offensive attack, finding the holes in the Yellow Jackets' secondary for an 18-yard touchdown pass from Hostetler to tight end Greg Nowak, who outleapt his defender for the score.
On the next drive, Hostetler hit his cousin, Josh Hostetler, on a 22-yard pass and then handed it off to Campanaro, who blasted up the middle on a 17-yard run to the Gwynn Park 1. A Hostetler keeper two plays later gave River Hill the lead going into halftime and renewed hope that this season, the season in which the team won its first playoff game and the 3A East Region championship, would continue.
"This game is in our hands," Campanaro said he thought after halftime. "We have to go out with the same intensity and same fire that we played with in the first half, play our game and we'll be fine."
"Everyone was doubting us as usual," Martin said. "We wanted to come out and prove everyone wrong. We had that hunger."
But after Daniel Hostetler connected with Josh Hostetler for a nice 25-yard touchdown, Gwynn Park showed its playoff experience and stepped up, demonstrating that its offense wasn't weak and that its defense, which gave up 5.4 points per game before the state semifinal matchup, did have teeth.
It was a tough loss for River Hill, but some players found solace in the season's successes, the promise of future teams and the thought that they had earned respect for Howard County football.
"We know about the whole thing 'Howard County teams can't play,' " Campanaro said.
"We beat Anne Arundel's best team," he said of Severna Park, the Hawks' foe in the 3A regional final. "And coming in there playing a [Prince George's] school, I thought we did a great job. We prepared very well. We didn't go out without a fight. I thought it was a great season, a historic season. The best season ever."
Campanaro heaped praise on the program and coaching staff, saying he expects the school to continue to have success in the years to come.
"We're not going to get any worse from this year," Martin said. "Now we know we can play with those P.G. teams. Everyone was asking us if we were going to be intimidated, and we definitely weren't."
A solid core will return for the Hawks next season, including junior quarterback Daniel Hostetler, leading receiver Nowak, Martin and three starting offensive lineman. Top that with the sophomores moving up from an undefeated junior varsity squad, and hope builds.
But the regular season schedule might present a problem. Instead of playing 3A Mount Hebron, the Hawks will take on Marriotts Ridge, a 1A school that will cut the number of bonus points the team can earn toward a playoff berth. With that factored in, River Hill might have to go undefeated to qualify for the often-tight 3A East Region race.
But Martin, for one, isn't discouraged.
"It can be done," he said. "So we'll have to see what happens."