Atholton's football players jumped in the end zone with their helmets raised and chanted in unison, "We're going to the show, we're going to the show," as its fans gave them a standing ovation following a 35-14 victory over Wilde Lake last night in Columbia.
The Raiders were referring to earning the school's first playoff spot in 20 years, as they likely clinched the top seed in the 2A South Region by posting their first victory over host Wilde Lake since 1996.
"It's just an incredible story," said senior running back Matt Winger, who rushed for a game-high 178 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries. "Just look at how far we've come."
The Raiders won one game last year but went 7-3 (6-3 league) this year -- not bad for a team that won five games combined during the previous four seasons and hadn't had a winning record in nine years.
"There were seasons where we'd be happy just to win one game," said Coach Chuck Fales. "I knew there was a chance we could make the playoffs based on what happened in other games this weekend. But I told our guys the only way we could guarantee to get in is if we did it our way -- and that was to beat Wilde Lake."
That's just what the Raiders did. Atholton took a 14-6 lead with 3 minutes 20 seconds left in the second quarter on Winger's one-yard run, and after forcing Wilde Lake (5-5, 4-5) to punt from its end zone, Winger returned the kick to the Wildecats' 15-yard line with 1:58 left.
Five plays later, with Atholton out of timeouts and facing a third and goal from the 3-yard line, junior quarterback Brett McQuilkin threw a quick slant to senior tight end Aras Vaitkus, who caught the first touchdown of his career with 14 seconds left in the half.
"I've been looking forward to finally scoring a touchdown," Vaitkus said. "So when we called the play, I knew I had my chance, and I couldn't be happier that it happened when it did."
Wilde Lake trimmed the lead to 20-14 on a four-yard run by senior running back Jarad Flagg, who also caught the ensuing two-point conversion pass with 22 seconds left in the third quarter, but the Raiders countered. Atholton went 65 yards on 10 plays, the last being a 24-yard touchdown run by Winger, who caught the two-point conversion to extend the lead to 28-14 with 8:15 left in the game.
Atholton capped the victory when senior cornerback Dean Hart returned an interception to the Wilde Lake 14-yard line, and Winger found the end zone two plays later with 5:29 left, prompting the its fans to chant, "We're in the playoffs, we're in the playoffs."
"It doesn't get much sweeter than beating our big rival Wilde Lake on their own field," junior linebacker Matt Lewis said. "I guess the only thing that would make it sweeter is beating them and making the playoffs at the same time."