The final games of the regular season will determine the playoff potential for on-the-cusp teams such as Howard, granted they can make it through the “meat grinder” that is Howard County, as Coach Bruce Strunk put it.

The competitiveness of the league and the physicality of most teams has Strunk and fellow coaches wishing there was just one easy game this season — not for record-padding, but to give the players some time to recover.

“Every game up until a week ago, we’ve lost a kid a game, just because of how physical other teams are,” Strunk said of injuries that have included knees, wrists and shoulders. “Sometimes just getting off the field is more important than points scored.”

The Lions’ three remaining opponents — Hammond, River Hill and local rival Long Reach — could give them their hardest outings of the season. One of Strunk’s biggest challenges this year has been getting a young squad accustomed to the grind of a varsity schedule.

“We preach to the kids that this is the game, this is what makes football fun — playing the good teams,” Strunk said.

Howard (5-2) is fifth in the standings for the 4A North playoffs heading into Friday. Two of the top four teams in that region are Montgomery County squads (Paint Branch and Sherwood) that will meet in Week 9.

The majority of the county is packed into the 3A East, where Glenelg (6-1), River Hill (6-1) and Reservoir (5-2) are all in the top four and Centennial sits five accumulated playoff points outside the fourth and final qualifying team. Hammond (5-2) gains more traction in the 2A South after beating a higher classification school last week.

Strunk is encouraging the Lions to focus less on the numbers and more on “controlling their own destiny” in the next weeks.

“We have three games, and if we win, we’re in,” he said. “If we lose one, then we’re letting other people determine our fate.”

Northern’s Howard uses lacrosse skills to rack up yards

A winning record for Northern could equal a trip to the playoffs for the first time in about a decade, but it would also make running back Austin Howard’s senior year even more packed.

He went straight from a regional semifinal loss in lacrosse last spring to summer tournaments, which led directly into August workouts for football. Howard will head to lacrosse conditioning and Saturday practices as soon as his final season on the gridiron is over.

The four-year varsity player and co-captain for football and lacrosse is having a breakout season for the Patriots (4-3) with 157 carries for 1,053 yards and 14 touchdowns.

It’s the type of season that would have him garnering looks to play at the next level if he hadn’t already committed to continue his lacrosse career at Stevenson University.

“I’ve always like the sports the same amount, but I never really thought about playing football in college until this year,” Howard said. “This is the biggest year I’ve had so far.”

Howard started playing football at age 7 and added lacrosse three years later. He plays defense in the latter. Skills from that position and a dominant offensive line have helped him emerge as the third most productive rusher in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference.

“You have to be agile and have good footwork for both sports,” Howard said. “For the position I play in football and in lacrosse I have to be really physical. Playing running back helps me with my speed in lacrosse, and both sports kind of help me work with my feet.”

Howard’s production on the ground will be crucial in this week’s meeting at Leonardtown (5-2, 4-2 SMAC). The Raiders will host their homecoming game coming off a late fourth-quarter upset of Westlake (4-3, 3-2) in Week 7.