Minutes later in the fourth quarter, the senior defensive back was at it again as he jumped a pass and pulled down his third interception.
Each time Franklin threatened, the Swarmin’ Hornets defense had an answer, and when Markus Vinson sealed the 14-12 victory with a rare first down on the final drive, they could celebrate their second consecutive Maryland 3A title on a chilly Thursday night at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
In a rematch of the 2014 final, in which Franklin scored five unanswered touchdowns en route to a 35-21 victory, the No. 3 Swarmin’ Hornets (14-0) avenged a heartbreaking loss in thrilling fashion.
Behind a defense that forced eight turnovers — four interceptions, a fumble, and three on downs — Damascus won its ninth state title.
“I wasn’t really expecting to get any picks,” Starheim said on the field after the game. “I knew they were going to throw it deep but I was just trusting my corners.”
Damascus’s 28th consecutive victory wasn’t pretty. The pregame walkthrough was a harbinger of the upcoming struggle, as quarterback Wade Rippeon limped onto the field while leaning on his teammate. The senior had injured his ankle and watched from the sideline as backup John Allan Ferguson took over the offense.
But the defense dominated, and the offense did just enough. Sean Jenkins picked off a pass on the opening drive to put Damascus deep in Franklin territory. On fourth down, Vinson took a pitch and to the outside and sped into the end zone untouched for the score.
The Swarmin’ Hornets’ longest passing play in the first half came when Ferguson floated a ball that hit Matthew Betterelli in stride, and the 6-3 junior tight end lumbered into the end zone for a 37-yard score. Those were the last points Damascus scored.
The Swarmin’ Hornets — a team that averaged 45.2 points through 13 games and routinely triggered running clocks — ran for minus-six yards in the first half and just 39 for the game. The timing was off by a fraction of a second, and the Franklin defense pounced on every opportunity.
But a defense that rarely faced adversity in a season of blowouts came through when the Swarmin’ Hornets needed it most. Starheim’s final interception came a few plays after Damascus thought it had a game-saving stop, but was whistled for roughing the kicker.
The senior came through again, and on the final drive for Franklin (11-2), the Damascus defense moved the Indians backward.
“I always tell them the only team that can beat Damascus is Damascus,” Coach Eric Wallich said. “They almost did tonight, but they found a way.”
On the ensuing possession, Damascus executed a play that had been so simple all season, as Vinson converted a first down to clinch the victory and avenge their devastating 2014 defeat.
Vinson, who had a costly fumble in the 2014 final, said earlier this week that he watched the game tape of the loss countless times.
“It’s a relief,” Vinson said after the Swarmin’ Hornets raised another state championship plaque. “It feels good that we finally got the monkey off our back.”
“It’s just kind of a relief. We talked about it this week and last week and were just like, it’s time,” Jenkins said. “We had our eyes on them all year, honestly, and we got them back.”