With Fort Hill comfortably in control Friday night in its eventual 46-7 1A West Region semifinal victory over Manchester Valley, and with score updates from the other semifinal pouring in from nearby Washington County, Greenway Avenue Stadium was abuzz, for the unthinkable was about to take place — Fort Hill was going to play Hancock.
Can you imagine? Fort Hill was going to meet Hancock, the smallest public school in the state of Maryland, with the incredulousness of it all being generated from the recurring misapprehension that Fort Hill, and Allegany as well, are still the large public schools they once were in the past — the distant past.
Folks, it’s called 1A out of 4A for a reason.
Still and all, the Hancock Panthers, in the midst of a remarkable 9-1 season under first-year head coach Todd Ruppenthal, were leading the North Carroll Panthers, 13-6, entering the final minutes of the game when the unthinkable took place a week in advance and in reverse.
With under 3:00 remaining and with Hancock in possession on fourth-and-nine from the North Carroll 20, North Carroll’s Aaron Heinle intercepted a pass at his six-yard line and returned it 45 yards to the Hancock 49. Carroll quarterback Jack Flowers, who had completed just two passes to that point, was suddenly Unitas, completing three straight, with the final one finding tight end Kyle Fielder in the end zone from 25 yards away.
Being on the road, North Carroll head coach Matt Martello had made up his mind at halftime — should the situation arise — he would go for two. And it did. And he did as well, with Fielder finding Zach Sherman for the two-point conversion and the 14-13 North Carroll win to send the Carroll County Panthers this way next Friday night for the West Region championship game.
So much — with great admiration for the late great Shirley Povich — for the million-to-one shot coming in, hell freezing over, or a month of Sundays hitting the calendar.
How different would a Fort Hill-Hancock match-up have been? It would have been very different, to some even surreal. But seeing how we live in the real, don’t bet the farm against it happening one day, given the MPSSAA regional playoff system and the direction Ruppenthal seems to have taken the Hancock program. But that is now a possibility to consider when or if it ever does take place. In the meantime, Hancock, once it moves on from an incredibly painful playoff loss, can proudly remember one of the greatest football seasons in school history, while Fort Hill must keep its sights set on accomplishing another one of its own.
“We’ve seen (North Carroll) three times, including tonight,” Fort Hill head coach Todd Appel said after Friday night’s win over Manchester Valley. “They have two fast backs, so we’re just going to have to prepare and get better, and I believe we will.”
Fort Hill faced a pretty good back Friday in the Mavericks’ Jake Fernandez, who is by no means a burner, but who runs hard to the point of attack and who then has enough speed to move sticks and keep drives alive and successful.
“He’s an exceptional I-back,” Appel said, “in the tradition of the Fort Hill I-backs and the Southern I-backs. You want to put those runners in a position to be running downhill and, when it comes to that, he’s a good one.”
Fort Hill did a good job defending Fernandez, who had first-half gains of 15 and 13, bottling him up for gains of three yards or less on seven of his 14 carries. He did not, however, carry on his team’s opening possession with the Mavericks already trailing 7-0, thanks to Ty Johnson’s 63-yard touchdown run on the second play of the game, providing an early glimpse of the contrast in the two teams. Manchester Valley can score when it collects first downs along the way, while Fort Hill, with a backfield of Johnson, Dekarai Darr and Alex Barnes, can score on a dime and, as they’ve proven time and again this season, at an instant’s notice.
But the Sentinels know they must prepare for the grind, not wait for the big play because big plays become fewer and farther between the deeper a season runs. In Friday’s second half, that’s how they played, beating and wearing down the Mavericks on both sides of the ball.
This weekend North Carroll arrives fresh off the first playoff win in school history. The Panthers went 2-8 and 1-9 the previous two seasons, before opening this season with seven straight wins. A couple of key injuries occurred, as did three straight losses, including last week to Manchester Valley. No. 4 seemed imminent Friday night in Hancock, but not to North Carroll’s way of thinking, according to Martello.
“We just hung in there,” he told the Carroll County Times. “We have an innate ability just to hang in games.”
Beginning with their big, strong, physical lines, the Sentinels have shown an ability to eliminate hang time.
Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org