Blake’s first playoff football game in school history against top-seeded Westminster (10-0) is a monumental moment for Coach Tony Nazzaro’s program, and the breakthrough comes after his team started the season 0-2, losing by a combined score of 62-7 to a pair of playoff teams, Northwest and Sherwood. Fourth-seeded Blake (6-4) is the only team in this year’s 4A field that lost its first two games.
“The Monday after the second game, after the Sherwood game, I kind of called all the kids together before practice and just said the reality is, our faith right now is being tested,” Nazzaro recalled. “If we can get this season turned around, we still have all our goals in front of us.”
[Complete playoff brackets can be found here.]
And Blake did, winning six of its next seven, with the only loss coming against No. 9 Seneca Valley (9-1) on October 12. In the process, the Bengals have leaned on senior quarterback Stefan Sigwalt (1,571 yards passing, 10 touchdowns), solidified an experienced defense (pitched two shutouts in late October to clinch the berth) and developed an explosive skill player in Marquis Robinson, who has scored 10 touchdowns this season at running back, wide receiver and kick returner.
“We just stayed motivated. I play with a whole bunch of guys that want it as bad as I do,” Blake linebacker Kevin Pharaon said. “We have a whole lot of respect for [Westminster]. I’m personally. . . not thinking of them as a number one seed. We’re going to play them just like we’ve played all these other teams. We’re going to put what we can on the table.”
The Owls present the toughest challenge to date. Blake’s loss to Einstein (6-4) in last week’s regular season finale didn’t help, said Nazzaro, who felt his team didn’t carry any sense of urgency because it had already clinched a playoff berth. Einstein’s Khalil Wilson ran for 189 yards on the Bengals, which blew a fourth-quarter lead in a 28-20 loss.
“We didn’t really approach our last game against Einstein, from a mental standpoint, the way we needed to,” Nazzaro said. “We already had the playoffs clinched and all week, people been congratulating us on making the playoffs. It’s just not about making it. We’re not just happy to be here.”
When third-seeded South River (8-2) travels to second-seeded Old Mill (8-2) on Friday night, it will mark the second time in as many seasons that the two teams have squared off in the regular season finale and 4A East semifinals in consecutive weeks.
Last year, the Patriots swept the two games by a combined score of 99-27 en route to claiming the state title and posting an undefeated record.
This year, South River has the chance to win back-to-back games after the Seahawks held off a late Old Mill rally to win 36-35 last Friday. South River jumped out to a 21-0 lead a week ago against the Patriots but allowed Old Mill to slowly make its way back into the game and even take a 35-28 lead in the fourth quarter.
The Seahawks escaped by relying on their most consistent offensive weapon this season: the connection between senior quarterback Connor Cox and senior wide receiver Eric Young, who has caught 21 of Cox’s 39 touchdown passes this season. Cox found Young in the end zone with less than two minutes left Friday night to bring the Seahawks to within one and put South River ahead for good on the subsequent play by scrambling into the end zone for a two-point conversion.
The loss was the second of the season for Old Mill, which also lost at home earlier this season against No. 8 Arundel (10-0), the region’s top seed.
“We’re happy that we won, first time in probably 30 years that we won a game to get into the playoffs. Last year we backed in,” South River Coach Lance Clelland said following his team’s win last week. “I don’t care who we play. We’re in and we have a great shot to win no matter who we play. Obviously we can beat Old Mill again.”
On Thursday morning, Coach Fred Kim said both players were being watched “day-by-day” and their availability for Friday’s region semifinal against North Hagerstown (9-1) would not be decided until game day.
Reighard, a junior, was briefly knocked unconscious when he took a helmet-to-helmet hit on a scramble in the second quarter of last week’s 20-14 win over Watkins Mill. Kim said the quarterback has been cleared to return to practice by his doctor but has not taken many reps in practice so far this week.
“We’re going to be better safe than sorry,” Kim said. “It’s not really about the game. It’s more about his health. . . . He’s not going to play unless he’s 100 percent.”
If Reighard sits out, the Eagles would turn to junior Maurice Gaines under center. Gaines, regularly a wide receiver, missed the Watkins Mill game with a knee injury but has practiced fully this week.
Jones-Williams — the team’s leading rusher the past two seasons — sustained his injury on a touchdown run in a 14-13 loss to Damascus on Oct. 26. He didn’t dress last week, and junior Kevin Joppy rushed for 156 yards and two touchdowns on a career-high 31 carries in his place.
In the region’s other semifinal, top-seeded Damascus makes its state-record 15th straight playoff appearance, hosting Urbana. The Swarmin’ Hornets (10-0) closed out their second perfect regular season in three years with last week’s 35-12 win at Northwood, while the Hawks (7-3) needed to win their final four games to claim a playoff spot.
Through the first eight games of the season, Gwynn Park seniors Joseph Hayman and Marc Bronson formed one of Prince George’s County’s most prolific rushing tandems. Splitting backfield duties, the competitive pair combined to average better than 160 yards per game.
Then Bronson landed awkwardly in the second half of a win against Largo on Oct. 20, spraining his knee. Though the injury cost him several practices and the final two games of the regular season, Bronson made sure Hayman didn’t get too comfortable without him.
Bronson “was always like, ‘Joe, you better keep it up,” Hayman said. “He told me, ‘I’m coming back, and I’m gonna be strong.’”
With Bronson finally healthy, Gwynn Park’s rushing attack will get a boost when the Yellow Jackets (9-1) kick off the Maryland 2A South playoffs on Friday night at Southern Maryland Athletic Conference co-champion McDonough (9-1), the region’s top seed. Hayman has rushed for at least 95 yards in five straight games, but Bronson and junior Eddie Gross should also see plenty of action against a Rams defense led by senior linebacker Christian Cole.
The fourth-seeded Yellow Jackets, who have run off eight straight wins since a Sept. 7 loss to Friendly, have the pieces in place for a strong run game with a starting offensive line that includes four seniors. Dual-threat quarterback junior Jay Adams has passed for 10 scores and rushed for six this season.
Hayman leads the team with 893 rushing yards and 15 total touchdowns, but he appreciates that Bronson and others can shoulder some of the offensive load.
The 5-foot-6, 165-pound Hayman also starts at cornerback and returns kicks. He hopes to play college football and said he has significant interest from New Hampshire, Georgetown and North Carolina Central.
Bronson (632 yards) is bigger at 5-foot-10, 195 pounds, but he also can line up in the slot and he leads the team with 12 catches. Gross — a McNamara transfer — can play fullback and has taken on an increased role in the offense late in the season.
Coach Danny Hayes said the group has found the perfect balance in the backfield with plenty of friendly competition and few complaints about playing time.
“It’s the same thing as any job,” Hayes said. “You don’t ever let your guard down because you can be replaced. Everybody’s coming to work and doing what they need to get done.”
Three times they have met in the Maryland 2A South playoffs since 2006 – including a 26-20 Douglass win in a region semifinal last year – and they will clash again Saturday in Upper Marlboro in what should be one of the area’s most-watched region semifinals.
“Any time you play [Douglass Coach J.C. Pinkney] and those guys, you just have so much respect for that staff,” Patuxent Coach Steve Crounse said. “Those guys do it right. They’re excellent playoff coaches and they’ll take advantage of whatever you’re not doing well.”
Pinkney’s Eagles have qualified for the postseason every year since 2003, an impressive feat in any region, and one that seems nearly impossible in the brutally-tough 2A South.
This year, Douglass (9-1) has been powered by its defense, which has recorded seven shutouts and allowed only six points total in its last seven games.
That unit, led by defensive end D’Sean Cummings and linebackers Matthew Paul and Rodney Boyd, will be tasked Saturday with slowing down a Patuxent offense that has averaged more than 41 points per game behind dual-threat quarterback Trey Lee and running back Rafiq Douglas.
“Those two kids they have touching the ball the most are two of the most dynamic kids you’re going to see in high school football,” Pinkney said. “We’re going to have to play our assignments and not get caught up in the misdirection and other stuff that they do.”
Those teams last met in the 3A South final in 2010, when Huntingtown earned a 52-16 win.
The Wolverines’ six-game winning streak was snapped last week in a 34-19 loss to North Point.
After winning five games total from 2008-2010, Poolesville has quickly reversed its fortunes since Coach Will Gant took over last fall. The team lost its first five games in 2011 but have won 11 of its past 15 games since then.
The turnaround takes another step when the Falcons (7-3) make their first playoff appearance in seven years on Friday, visiting Walkersville (9-1) for a 2A West semifinal on Friday night.
Gant has done his best to keep the team focused on the game through a busy week of preparation, but the former Clarksburg defensive coordinator also wants the Falcons to take some pride in reaching their top goal heading into the season.
“I’ve had to tell a lot of my coaches and kids to take some time to enjoy it,” said Gant, who last coached a postseason game in 2008. Making the playoffs “is always the goal, but it doesn’t happen every year. I was part of some good football teams at Clarksburg that didn’t make the playoffs.”
On Friday, Poolesville will have to contend with senior running back Avery Ezell, who averaged nearly 180 rushing yards per game during the regular season.
Gant called Ezell “the most talented running back we’ve faced.” The Lions were undefeated until falling to defending state champ Middletown, 31-6, in their regular season finale.