Paint Branch quarterback Gaston Cooper typed in “Perry Hall” into Google Maps one day last week, trying to figure out how long the trip would be to the school had the Panthers not won home-field advantage through the Maryland 4A North region playoffs. Paint Branch won’t have to make that hour-long trip this weekend. It will host the Gators (10-1) in Friday’s region final, but that matchup wouldn’t have happened had Cooper not sliced up Sherwood’s secondary last Friday in the semifinal.
It was the first real playoff game in Cooper’s career – and the atmosphere at home put him in a “hyped mood.” It certainly didn’t change what Cooper has been doing all season long. He threw for 317 yards and five touchdowns, and went without an interception. But his numbers didn’t fully speak to how efficient, and explosive, Cooper was in the first half. He had touchdown throws of 9, 67, 20 and 35 yards in the first two quarters, and he added a one-yard touchdown run. By the time he hit Javan Grafton for a 26-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, the score was 42-7 and Paint Branch had beaten a quality Warriors team for a second time in three weeks.
“It was the playoffs, so we knew they were going to come out. So we had to come even more tough,” Cooper said. “We had to come out and take control early, and set the pace in our favor.”
Cooper’s ability to control the pace early in games has been key to this season’s run. Of 450 points scored in 11 games, 335 have come in the first half. Paint Branch has scored three touchdowns in the second quarter in each of the last five weeks, and hasn’t trailed at halftime in any game this season.
Cooper has attracted recruiting interest with his play this fall, where he has thrown for 2,578 yards and 35 touchdowns. He is also the team’s leading rusher, having amassed over 500 yards on the ground and 19 touchdowns. Having a chance to play Perry Hall at home this week gives him another opportunity to build on the gaudy numbers and exposure of this season, which has been nothing short of remarkable.
“[Perry Hall] is not a pushover,” Cooper said. “I just know from their record, they can’t just be any other team.”