All-Met running back Marcus Whalen wasn't sure if the blood that dripped from his forehead and nose after Thomas Stone's 20-14 win over Westlake last night came from the hard hits during the game, or from his teammates who piled on top of him at midfield when time expired.
But he didn't care. Whalen's three-yard plunge into the end zone with 4 minutes 18 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter ended the Westlake's dominance of the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference and gave the Cougars the conference title -- and the Maryland 3A South Region championship as well.
By winning the South Region, No. 14 Thomas Stone (10-0, 8-0 SMAC) will play its first-round state playoff game at home. No. 13 Westlake (8-2, 6-2) was not eliminated from the postseason with the loss, but will need help to get in.
"This game was everything for us," said Whalen, a senior, who rushed for a game-high 160 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries. "If we hadn't won this game we wouldn't even have wanted to go to the playoffs. This is what mattered.
"I've lost to this team for three straight years -- by 12, 20 and last year by three points -- but this is our year. We're the better team this year and we proved that tonight."
The win was the first for Thomas Stone over Westlake in school history. The Wolverines, who entered the SMAC as a varsity member in 1995, won the conference championship their first four years in the league. They have lost five conference games in five years.
"The kids are crushed," Westlake Coach Dominic Zaccarelli said. "A lot of the kids put the blame on themselves. It's not easy to be the first team to lose the conference championship. Hopefully, they can get into the playoffs and do something positive."
With the score tied at 14 in the fourth quarter, Thomas Stone recovered a fumble by Westlake running back Recardo Evans on the Wolverines 23-yard line. The Cougars moved to the 3 when quarterback Phillip Buddenbender, flushed out of the pocket, rolled to his right and found tight end Mike Farland for a 14-yard gain on fourth down and four.
Whalen was dropped for a three-yard loss, then was stopped for no gain by Westlake junior Randy Starks. Running back Mike Finamore didn't find any room on third down -- he was dropped for a loss of two. Facing fourth and goal from the 8, Finamore lined up to attempt the 25-yard field goal for the lead.
The kick -- which appeared to be tipped -- was no good, but the Wolverines were called for roughing the kicker, which gave the Cougars an automatic first down at the 4. Whalen was held to a one-yard gain on first down, but the senior burst up the middle on second down and the celebration began.
Sophomore Mark Johnson, who returned the opening kickoff of the second half 85 yards for a touchdown for Thomas Stone, intercepted quarterback Larry Johnson on the Wolverines' next possession to seal the win.
"We've been to the playoffs once before and got smacked," Thomas Stone Coach Richard Callahan said. "This time, with at least one game at home, hopefully we can make a run at the state title."