There were times this fall when William Johnson's mind would drift, when he would let his thoughts wander seven miles north on U.S. 301 to Douglass High, where for the first three years of high school he started at running back and linebacker for the Eagles.
Before this school year, however, Johnson transferred to nearby Gwynn Park, and he plays for the Yellow Jackets. On Saturday, Johnson recovered a fumble and returned it 84 yards for a touchdown and rushed 12 times for a season-high 79 yards, helping Gwynn Park advance to the Maryland 3A final with a 30-21 victory over River Hill.
The Yellow Jackets (13-0) will play for their first state title against Westminster (12-1) on Saturday night at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium.
Douglass, meantime, had its season ended in a loss to Sherwood in a 4A semifinal last weekend. The Eagles finished 12-1.
With one of the most talented lineups in the Washington area, Gwynn Park has plenty of experience and several standouts. At running back, the Yellow Jackets returned senior William Little. They also have used speedy Rashad Carmichael, and sophomore Jerrell Coles has gained notice from Coach Danny Hayes. At linebacker, Little, Adrian Moten, Phillip Higgins and Ben Bennett gave Hayes quite a unit entering the season. For Johnson, playing time would not be easy to find.
"It was real hard, because I'm used to being on the field and never coming off the field," Johnson said. "The thing that made it easy was because we were winning. If we weren't winning, I wouldn't have been able to handle it. It was hard, because I love playing, but we were winning, and that made it easier. At first, it was like getting homesick. The coaching styles are a little different. But towards the middle of the season, I felt like I was at home at Gwynn Park."
By that point, Johnson was getting more than his share of playing time. He became accustomed to the way coaches wanted him to play on defense. Offensively, after Carmichael injured his knee in mid-October, more playing time gradually came his way.
"It's all about competing, and he's not afraid of competition," Hayes said. "I don't play any favorites and he ended up winning a job. If you're afraid of competing, this sport is not for you. If they just want to start, they can go somewhere else. He's played fantastic and been very consistent."
It has been enjoyable for Johnson, who added that the transfer was made easier because his cousin Aaron Hicks played for the Yellow Jackets last season.
"I knew some people who were hanging around him, plus the schools are close," Johnson said. "It was basically the same people. And I knew a lot of people from middle school, too."
Johnson said he is plenty familiar with Gwynn Park's playoff history. The Yellow Jackets are in the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season, but are seeking their first state title.
"We've talked about it," he said. "We're going to be the first team to win the state championship. Some people think we're the best team to go to Gwynn Park. But me, going to Douglass, we played against some good Gwynn Park teams, so I'm not sure about that."
Defense Saves the Day
Potomac was threatened for a few moments in its 14-7 victory over Joppatowne in the Maryland 2A semifinals on Friday. After leading 14-0 at halftime, the Wolverines allowed a touchdown and started making mistakes. A penalty and dropped pass stalled one drive. Then a botched handoff early in the fourth quarter gave Joppatowne the ball in Potomac territory.
As Joppatowne successfully converted a pair of fourth-down plays, one could sense the momentum shifting. And if the Mariners scored, Coach Bill Waibel confirmed later, they were going for the two-point conversion and the win.
But with Joppatowne facing third-and-seven from the Potomac 19 with less than six minutes remaining, defensive lineman Chris Mason sacked the quarterback, forcing a fumble that teammate Terrell Poe recovered. The Wolverines then were able to run out the clock and earn their berth in Saturday's Maryland 2A title game against South Carroll.
"Chris Mason is a little unknown guy who played his butt off the other night," Potomac Coach Eric Knight said, noting Mason's nine tackles. "He's been in the rotation, but never as a starter. The other night, he showed he is a performer. And you know who has stepped it up in the playoffs is Deonte Monroe."
Monroe, a 5-foot-11, 330-pound defensive tackle, had nine tackles using surprising quickness to get to the ball. It continued a trend of surprising play -- Knight said when Monroe first introduced himself and said he wanted to play football, the coach was not impressed.
"I thought, 'Hmmm, this guy doesn't look like a whole lot of football player to me,' but I was wrong," Knight said. "He's been starting ever since our first game last year. You need a snowplow or a tractor to push him out of the way. He has a low center of gravity. He takes up so much space in the middle and gives our linebackers the opportunity to fly to the ball and make hits. There are a lot of guys you don't hear a whole lot about but they are very important parts to our team.
"What we're doing is something that hasn't been done very often," Knight added. "How many other schools have been to the state final three times in a row? Not a whole bunch. It's under 10, I'll bet. And we have a chance to be the first team in Prince George's to go back to back."
For the record, Potomac and Damascus are the 11th and 12th schools in Maryland history to appear in at least three consecutive state finals. The only other Prince George's team to accomplish the feat was Forestville, which won the Maryland 1A title in 1999 and lost in the 1998 and 2000 championship games.
Successful Season Ends
It was a disappointing way to end the season for Douglass. After going undefeated in the regular season and winning the Maryland 4A South Region title, the Eagles wasted several scoring chances and lost to visiting Sherwood, 14-7, in the Maryland 4A semifinals this past Saturday.
"It hurts real bad to get this far and get big expectations," running back Rico Greene said. "We wanted to go to the state championship, but unfortunately we couldn't do it. They didn't do anything big on defense, they didn't do anything big on offense. It was us. We couldn't get it rolling."
Sherwood turned the ball over on its first three possessions and Douglass three times in the first half drove inside the Warriors' 15-yard line without scoring. It was the second consecutive season that Douglass lost in the state semifinals and they have not been to the state final since 1975.
"We shot ourselves in the foot," Douglass Coach J.C. Pinkney said. "In big games, at some point when you have five scoring opportunities, you've got to get in. We've been here before. I've seen that score before. It was painful last time. It's just as painful this time. We have to do a better job executing in big games. It's really tough. You would think we could overcome 14 points."