The texts and calls of support and good luck started coming in the last week of November. Former players and students from across the country and as far as Germany and Italy sent words of encouragement to Patuxent Coach Steve Crounse as he prepared for his first trip to the state final.

The town of Lusby (population 1,835), nestled in the southernmost tip of the smallest county in Maryland, sent the Panthers off to Baltimore for Saturday’s 2A state final with an escort that included a fire engine and state police, plus a crowd of 400 outside the neighborhood Giant.

But at the end of the day at M&T Bank Stadium, the Panthers fell, 17-3, to Middletown, and returned home runners-up.

Patuxent (13-1) did everything but find the end zone in a defensive battle vs. the Knights, who won their third straight state title.

“Our defense bailed us out,” Crounse said. “They were a bit maligned during the year and people in the conference would say our defense was not that good, but today they showed up.”

The defense held senior running back Brad Rinehart to fewer than 100 yards rushing and made several crucial tips on passes from quarterback Tim Pirrone.

The Panthers were going up against a Frederick County team with a 35-game win streak, four consecutive state title appearances and five region titles in a row.

But more significantly, Middletown (14-0) had the strength and size to contain a Panthers offense that came in averaging 320.5 rushing yards.

Defensive end Rick Leonard, a Florida State recruit, and the Knights bottled up the Panthers’ ground game, holding junior quarterback Tyler Crounse to just 45 yards on 20 carries and senior running back Rafiq Douglas to 82 yards on 11 carries.

The 6-foot-7, 260-pound Leonard also made a 17-yard reception (he plays receiver on offense) to set up Middletown’s first-half touchdown with 18 seconds remaining in the first quarter. He was able to put a hand on top of 5-9 Joe Parsons’s helmet to hold him off for that catch.

“They just came at you,” said linebacker Geoff Ricker . “They were relentless in what they did. They’ve very disciplined, and they did exactly what they had to do.”

The Panthers had an opportunity to catch up midway through the third quarter on a bold 32-yard scramble up the left from Douglas. But the drive fell short after Crounse was sacked and the Panthers settled for a 33-yard field goal from Eric Chaconas with 1 minute 24 seconds remaining in the third.

“Our heart this season, it was just outstanding,” Ricker said.

Patuxent’s season ended one victory short, but the campaign included the Calvert County school’s first regional title season since 2007 and first trip to the Ravens’ home field since 2001.

“I don’t know how to put it exactly, it’s kind of just been everything I’ve dreamed about,” said the younger Crounse on the season.

“I’ve been working my whole life to the point where I can lead the team and bring the community together. It’s not exactly how I wanted it to end, but I have another season to be a leader.”