For 24 bruising minutes last week, Wilde Lake of Columbia trailed Milford Mill, 6-0, in a semifinal game of the Maryland Class B state football playoffs. Seventeen seconds later, after a 78-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Wildecats were on the way to a 14-12 victory and a chance to win the first state football championship in the school's 13-year history.

Saturday at 1 p.m., Wilde Lake (10-2) will face undefeated Allegany (12-0), a 38-12 winner over Cambridge last week, at the University of Maryland's Byrd Stadium.

It has been a long road since opening day, when the Wildecats were shut out by Gilman of Baltimore, 20-0. It has been an even longer road for Doug DuVall, now in his 11th year with the Wildecats.

"We've had some really good teams in the past," he said, "but none that ever advanced this far. So I'd have to say this is a special bunch of guys."

Had it not been for Darrel Davis' 78-yard kickoff return to open the third period against Milford Mill, DuVall's "special bunch of guys" probably would be raking leaves Saturday instead of playing football.

"We needed a big play at that point, and Darrel gave it to us," DuVall said. "Up to that point, we'd been moving the ball well, but we kept stopping ourselves with penalties. I guess this team needs to fall behind before it can win."

Before Milford Mill, the Wildecats spotted Hammond a 14-0 lead before rallying in the second half for a 27-14 victory. It's been a problem with the Wildecats all season.

"We've yet to put together a full game," said linebacker Jack Bradford, one of five Wildecats named to the all-Howard County first team, joining offensive guard Joe Ellison, running back Mark Alexander, defensive lineman Bill Douglas and defensive back Davis. "We are a second-half team. We're a come-from-behind team."

DuVall has been "waiting a long time" for Saturday's game. The Wildecats, although 86-25 under DuVall, have never made the playoffs before.

"I wondered at times if I would ever get this far," said DuVall. "But I set two goals for myself: to win the state championship and win 100 games. I'll tell you what, we're closing in on both of those now."