The sun came out, the winter weather stayed away and the state football championship came back to Fort Hill High School amidst a loud, encouraging and delighted sea of red-clad fans — maybe 3,000 of them — as the Sentinels put an emphatic period on their bold statement of the past 14 games.
Fort Hill, a tremendous defensive team to begin with, played its greatest defensive game of the season to out-defense a pretty darn good defense as well in blanking top-seeded Frederick Douglass, 25-0, in front of its outnumbered hometown crowd in Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium to win the Maryland 1A state championship, the school’s third state title in football and second in 2013 just over three months into the school year, joining the Fort Hill volleyball team as state champions.
Fort Hill won a game without its patented big-play offense, as the Douglass Ducks hit the Sentinels and contained them as well as any team has in the past 14 straight Fort Hill victories. However, Fort Hill won because its offense was even tougher and more physical than the Ducks’ defense, wearing down the stout unit behind its relentless offensive line and hard, tough, clutch running of Alex Barnes, Dekarai Darr and Ty Johnson.
But the Fort Hill defense — Oh, Doctor, the Fort Hill defense! — made all things possible by battering beleaguered quarterback Camron West with a mind-boggling 10 sacks with constant pressure from every player who calls himself a down lineman or linebacker, and came up with two money interceptions — one that delivered a 27-yard touchdown by Barnes, and another one by Johnson that prevented a touchdown on Douglass’ first possession of the second half and best possession of the game that essentially delivered the state championship.
The scene afterward was not really what one might expect following a state championship win. Yes, there was happiness; yes, even joy. There was contentment, there was pride, there was brotherhood and love, there was raw emotion, and there was the melancholy that surrounds the completion of our great projects. The great journey had been completed — completed perfectly, but completed nonetheless.
“It’s great knowing we won a state championship,” said Darr, the gritty and spectacular 5-4, 170-pound fullback, who shook off a first-half rib injury to finish the game and earn every one of the 95 yards he rushed for. “But, knowing it’s my last game at Fort Hill High School, it’s depressing ... but you just got to look past that.
“I played football with Alex and Ty ... it’s been great but it’s now over.”
Todd Appel, the Fort Hill head coach, who in six seasons has coached his alma mater to 66 football victories and just 11 losses for a winning percentage of .857, compared to the legendary Bill Hahn’s school-record .873, spoke not as a state-championship winning football coach, but as a proud father when he spoke of his players after the game.
“They are great people first and foremost,” he said with a voice that cracked slightly, “... Let me take some time and get my emotions. I don’t want to do that today in front of the camera. But, uh ... I think there are 37 of 42 kids who are a 3.0 (grade-point average) or higher. They come to work every day. Hardly ever is there anyone missing a practice. When you say 42 come to practice, 42 come to practice, unless they have a really good reason. They do things day in and day out, and try to give themselves a legacy they can be proud about in the end. I love the state championship, and so many people have wanted this for so many years, but I’m more proud of them as individuals.”
There was another coach in attendance Saturday at M&T who was pretty proud of one of his players as well, or at least a former coach who was proud of one of his former players. Allegany Principal Mike Calhoun was on hand for the weekend serving in his capacity of state football chairman for the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. He coached football at Fort Hill for 13 seasons, winning 122 games and losing just 31, leading the Sentinels to the Class 2A state title in 1997.
In 1986, Calhoun’s first season at the school, his best linebacker was a senior by the name of Todd Appel. And when it was time to reward the victors their spoils on Saturday, it was the coach of the last state championship Fort Hill football team presenting the trophy to the coach of the current Fort Hill state championship football team.
“That’s special ... Mike Calhoun,” Appel said, again looking briefly down at his shuffling feet. “I saw he wore a red jacket today. And I’m glad he’s back in that color ... for today, at least. Yeah, he’s been a great mentor to me, on and off the field, and like I said when I first got this job, I wouldn’t be here if it were not for him, being my mentor early.
“Yes, to receive that trophy from him, it was special.”
All in all, it was the perfect day to be a Fort Hill Sentinel, and, of course, through it all were the Fort Hill fans. For after all, if the Fort Hill fans aren’t there, then it really must not be a Fort Hill football game.
“This just wouldn’t be possible if not for all of those people who came to support us,” said Appel. “To see all of that red and white waiting for us and to support us, I know it got to me and I know it meant the world to the kids. For that many to drive that far to be with us today ... They were definitely the 12th man today.
“They gave us such a big lift and helped push us to this. Certainly they deserve to enjoy this for as long as we will.
“What is it I hear them say all the time? We are ... Fort Hill.”
Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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