The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Quince Orchard’s defense delivers as Cougars top Northwest, 14-13, in Maryland 4A semifinal

Savan Briggs and Quince Orchard are headed back to the state title game. (Brett Melnick/For The Washington Post)
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While many Quince Orchard players rejoiced on their home field after their 14-13 win Friday night, adrenaline took over for defensive back Steven Sannieniola. The senior sprinted to the home sideline, grabbed a makeshift championship belt and raised his arms in front of the packed bleachers.

The first day after Sannieniola transferred from Bullis last year, his new teammates told him about 2019, when Northwest ran all over the Cougars’ defense in the state semifinals. On the same field between the same teams with the same stakes, Friday’s game again came down to Quince Orchard’s defense.

This time, Sannieniola’s unit stopped Northwest on its final drive in Gaithersburg, sending Quince Orchard back to the Maryland 4A championship after the Cougars last won in 2018. Next Friday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, the Cougars will face C.H. Flowers or reigning champion Wise, who meet in the other 4A semifinal Saturday.

“We had to do one of the hardest things in football, which is to beat a good team twice,” said Sannieniola, a Vanderbilt commit. “It's just the best feeling I’ve felt in a while.”

Often when a team throttles an opponent in the regular season, a postseason rematch plays out similarly. But after Quince Orchard’s 31-0 win over Northwest on Oct. 22, neither team got complacent.

After all, in three of the previous six seasons, Northwest (11-2) lost to Quince Orchard (13-0) by 10 or more points in the regular season only to get revenge in the playoffs. While the Cougars have controlled the rivalry in the regular season, Northwest has triumphed more often in the postseason.

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Most years, the Montgomery County rivals are so evenly matched that players and coaches say the difference in their games will be the special teams. That was true Friday.

Midway through the third quarter, Northwest scored to cut its deficit to one point. On its extra point attempt, Quince Orchard defensive back Jalen Huskey broke through the right side of Northwest’s line and dove to block the kick.

All week, Quince Orchard prepared to block Northwest’s kicks from the left side. But Coach John Kelley noticed the Jaguars adapted and told Huskey to pursue from the opposite direction.

“You hear from the moment you get here [about 2019],” said Huskey, who won a state title with Middletown in 2019 before transferring to Quince Orchard. “They want you to push harder and harder so nobody ends up like that. We don’t want that sour taste in our mouth again here at QO.”

Every day since Quince Orchard’s 2019 defeat, senior offensive lineman Connor McDonald has thought about that heartbreak. His anxiety only worsened when the coronavirus pandemic canceled the 2020 season.

When Northwest’s pass on fourth down with about 30 seconds remaining fell incomplete, McDonald’s mind cleared.

“Oh my god,” McDonald said. “I’ve been waiting for this for years. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

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