After Fort Hill opened everybody’s eyes last season in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year (*1), it was a pretty sure bet that the Sentinels, given all of their returning resources, would be making a run for the state championship this year (*2).
*1 - Just said to exasperate Fort Hill head coach Todd Appel because everybody knows there is no such thing as a rebuilding year.
*2 - Ibid. Because everybody knows there is no such thing as a sure thing, which is precisely why the Sentinels will play for the Maryland 1A state championship tomorrow at noon — they prepared, practiced and played every day to reach this one.
The Fort Hill team and coaching staff, both led by Appel, burn the midnight oil year-round to become the best football team and program they can be. It’s a fact — you might beat the Sentinels, but you’re never going to outwork them. Last season, Fort Hill was not rebuilding, Fort Hill was just, in Appel’s word, “new.”
“I don’t believe in the word rebuilding as far as a football team is concerned,” Appel said in August of 2012. “We work with kids who are there and who want to play football.”
In August of this year, when the Fort Hill coach was asked for his team’s outlook on the coming season, he said, “(The players) have goals. They don’t want any distractions. They’re here to seize the day, take care of their day-to-day business and win a state championship. They know, little by little, that is how that is accomplished. The little things. Their outlook is as clear as that.”
After all, there is no such thing as a sure thing. Either way.
“I think (2012’s 9-3 season) was a great example of what you can do as a team while not paying attention to anything other than your internal group,” Appel said in the same preseason interview. “Everybody said we’d be bad last year, but the kids didn’t listen to that. The year before, everybody said how good we’d be, and the kids listened to that.”
In fairness, the 2011 Sentinels were pretty darn good, winning 12 of 13 games. The goal, however, was to play and win the 14th game. Which is where Fort Hill finds itself tomorrow at noon when it plays Baltimore’s Douglass Ducks in Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium.
“Our players have been focused,” Appel said on Wednesday night “They really want to do this. It’s 14 games and it’s a long year; people are tired, but their goal is right in front of them, which lends to their self-motivation in practice, in the film room and, hopefully, Saturday at noon.
“They really want to do this and, hopefully, we will.”
Perhaps during the course of the season, visions of playing for a state championship danced in the heads of the Fort Hill players and, yes, even Coach Appel. But if they did, they were very short dances because this season the Sentinels systematically crossed the items that mattered the most from their to-do list — establish goals, eliminate distractions, proceed day-to-day, take care of the little things. It is the approach that has permeated Fort Hill football through the days of Hahn, Lattimer, Bittner, Calhoun, Lattimer and, now Appel. It is doing the little things, and doing the little things correctly, that will enable you to have a productive day, and it is with this approach that Fort Hill has become the winningest football program in Western Maryland history with 623 all-time victories.
This Fort Hill team has entered every game it has played this season as the prohibitive favorite and has walked away from all 13 as the winner. But it hasn’t been as easy as it sounds or as easy as the Sentinels have often made it look. Sure, they have everything you need talent-wise to win any football game they play. But how many times have we seen the most talented team lose to a team that had the better preparedness, the better plan, the better cohesiveness and the higher value for paying the price?
Yes, Fort Hill has had the most talented team in every game it has played to this point, but what has made the Sentinels such a good football team, and an undefeated football team, is their appreciation of who and what they are when they are together.
“It’s really a team thing with these kids,” Appel said after the 42-0 semifinal win over Surrattsville. “They really want to win this whole thing, but they want to do it together.”
The Sentinels have gotten to this point by taking nothing for granted. The so-called sure bet of Fort Hill playing for a state championship this season came in, not because of what they are as talented football players, but because of who they are as teammates.
The great football coach George Allen exhorted his team prior to a championship game by preaching, “Just remember this ... 40 men together can’t lose!”
For the 2013 Fort Hill Sentinels, this sentiment is not merely a powerful belief, it is a lifestyle. It is who they have become.
Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org