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Maryland 4A football: Mark Pierce leads Northwest past Paint Branch, into state final

Although nearly every player on the field was in pursuit of Northwest wide receiver Matt Watson during the tail end of his 93-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, there were two stragglers.

Northwest sophomore quarterback Mark Pierce and Paint Branch defensive back Johnny Littlejohn — the two best players on the field during Friday night’s Maryland 4A semifinal — met on the field before heading to their respective sidelines. Pierce extended his hand to Littlejohn and congratulated him on the season, knowing Watson’s run was the dagger in the ninth-ranked Jaguars’ 55-36 victory on a frigid night in Burtonsville.

“I told him good season,” Pierce said. “He was like, ‘Go win.’ Everyone wants us to win this for MoCo. Everyone.”

It was a sign of humility from Pierce, who is just a sophomore. But it was also a sign of maturity on a night when the youthful Pierce continued to take the Maryland high school football scene by storm. He threw for 393 yards and six touchdowns and ran for another as Northwest knocked off No. 8 Paint Branch to advance to next Friday’s 4A title game at M&T Bank Stadium.

The Jaguars will meet the winner of Saturday’s other semifinal between No. 10 Meade and fifth-ranked Suitland.

In a show of good sportsmanship, Paint Branch safety Johnny Littlejohn shakes hands with Northwest quarterback Mark Pierce after the Jaguars put Friday’s Maryland 4A semifinal out of reach. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Paint Branch (11-2) entered the night with perhaps the most prolific offense in the state — a finely tuned machine that averaged more than 42 points per game this fall. Littlejohn was sensational early, scoring on a 93-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. But Northwest (11-2) wasn’t intimidated behind the crispness of Pierce, who completed 13 of his first 15 passes in difficult conditions. His most impressive throw came late in the second quarter, when he tossed a fade to Joshua Gills (nine catches, 162 yards) that beat double coverage for a 33-yard touchdown to put the Jaguars up 35-26.

Paint Branch quarterback Gaston Cooper (275 yards passing, four touchdowns) scored on a six-yard run late in the third quarter to pull Paint Branch within 43-36, but those were the only points of the half for the Panthers.

Pierce hit Watson for a 13-yard touchdown on the following drive, and Watson added his third touchdown of the day on a reverse call after the Jaguars had stopped Paint Branch at their own 5-yard line with about five minutes left. It was set up by Pierce’s play-fake.

“He’s playing way beyond his years,” Watson said. “He plays like a senior.”

Roman Stubbs covers the University of Maryland athletics for The Washington Post.
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