CUMBERLAND — Instead of looking past a winless Mountain Ridge team, Fort Hill took every opportunity it could to prepare for its annual Homecoming meeting with Allegany while defeating the Miners 41-6 Friday night at Greenway Avenue Stadium.
Four Sentinels scored the team’s six touchdowns as Fort Hill got to the end zone on the ground, through the air, on a punt return and even returned an interception while rolling out 308 yards of offense against the Miners.
As things sit right now in the Maryland 1A West Region, Boonsboro holds the No. 1 spot with Fort Hill and Allegany filling in the No. 2 and three seeds, and Brunswick the fourth. Barring a Smithsburg upset of Boonsboro, the Sentinels and Campers could be playing back-to-back weeks by facing each other in the first round of the playoffs.
After beginning the season 2-2 many may have counted the Sentinels out of even being in contention for a playoff spot, but not Head Coach Todd Appel.
“As a head coach you always have to show optimism,” he said. “We never thought we were in trouble, we just had to find the right spots for the players and find out what we could do once we got them in the right spot. From there we’ve worked on being more consistent, and though I’d still like to see us be a little more consistent than we have been, we’ve come a long way since early in the season.”
Appel also made it a point to reward his seniors for the work they’ve put in all year by inserting all of them into the starting lineup. While it made for some different looks on the field, the results satisfied everyone as the Sentinels scored twice before the regulars entered the game in the second quarter.
Playing quarterback instead of wideout, senior Travis Bush ran three times off of play-action to gain 66 yards on the first series, taking his last carry 28 yards for the first points to give the Sentinels a 7-0 lead with 7:45 remaining in the first quarter.
“I told the seniors at practice that they had earned the right to start tonight. The way they played on the field would determine how long they stayed out there,” said Appel.
After a three-and-out from Mountain Ridge, Fort Hill got excellent penetration on the punt and may have gotten a piece of a kick that went out of bounds at the line of scrimmage and set the Sentinels up with a short field at the Miners’ 14-yard line.
Fort Hill went to Zac Elbin, also a senior, on two straight runs and with 4:41 left in the first quarter gave his team a 13-0 lead with a five-yard run. Elbin lost a lot of yards and one touchdown on the ground when he had two runs called off due to penalties.
The Miners, who had already lost one of their top backs when Rashawn Johnson went down early in the night, put together a very impressive drive the second time they had the ball. A good mix of inside and outside running, coupled with a 22-yard pass from Michael Strietbeck to Shon Spencer, moved the ball all the way down to the Fort Hill 20. Fort Hill’s Ty Mance ended the drive when he intercepted an overthrown pass at the Sentinels’ four-yard line and returned it to the 42.
Spencer hurt his left leg near the end of the drive and would not return, thinning an already skinny sideline for the Miners.
Mance, who had just missed a touchdown on his first interception, completed the job when he got his second chance, going 37 yards after picking off another overthrow to make it 20-0 Sentinels with 7:14 remaining before halftime.
Elbin finally got his big play a few minutes later on a Mountain Ridge punt. Elbin fielded the ball along the visitors sideline, made his way to the left and found his wall of blockers to go 71 yards and make it 27-0.
The Sentinels got one more touchdown before halftime, going to Bush, who was back at wideout, down the home sideline on fourth-and-5 at the Fort Hill 45. The Mountain Ridge defender tried to make a play on the ball in the air, but came up a few inches short which left Bush all by himself to go 55 yards and give the Sentinels a 34-0 halftime lead.
Playing a winless team a week before the biggest game of the season isn’t the ideal way to make sure a team is ready, but Coach Appel stressed to his players that every play of this game was just as important as the snaps in the next one.
“We told the kids that each and every snap tonight was in preparation for next week. It wasn’t about getting the win and moving on, but about continuing to improve everywhere we can.”
It was also about staying healthy.
“We got 33 guys on the roster and one of the biggest things was making sure we had 33 guys healthy going into next week. The last thing you want to worry about is making changes this late in the season because of an injury.”
A Miners three-and-out on their first possession of the second half set Fort Hill up at its own 14, but Dekari Darr, who rushed for 135 yards last week against Chestnut Ridge, needed only one carry to go 86 yards and make it 41-0. Darr led the Sentinels on the ground again this week with 87 yards on three carries.
Mountain Ridge responded with one of its better drives of the season, going 85 yards in 21 plays and finishing with a one-yard touchdown by Ben Hadra with 5:33 left on a running clock to make it 41-6.
Hadra carried the ball 16 times on the drive for 71 yards and had a total of 104 on 28 attempts. The Miners had 47 carries for 149 yards for the game.
The Sentinels got a 64-yard run from Alex Barnes to take them down to Mountain Ridge’s five before they let the clock run out.
Fort Hill (7-2) and Allegany play for the 86th time on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. Mountain Ridge (0-9) finishes off the season on Friday when it welcomes Keyser to Frostburg.
Chris Appel is a sportswriter for the Times-News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.