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This was shaping up as finally being a close playoff matchup Friday night in the Class 3A South Region final.

Huntingtown 29, Westlake 7

Westlake 0 7 0 0Huntingtown 0 15 7 7Second quarterH Bowens 12 run (Reeves kick), 6:01W Holley 2 run (Stevenson kick), 11:01 H Rawlings 75 pass from Piazza (Bowens run), 11:17 Third quarter H Bowens 6 run (Reeves kick), 11:34 Fourth quarter H Curtis 38 interception return (Reeves kick), 7:59 Team stats W (11 first downs, 32-128 rushing, 56 passing, 2-0 fumbles, 11-77 penalties) H (12 first downs, 43-267 rushing, 129 passing, 4-2 fumbles, 7-45 penalties) Top individual performers Rushing W: Holley 12-92, Brooks 7-27; H: Bowens 24-159, Rowe 6-87 Passing W: Roddy 3-10-2 34; H: Piazza 5-9-0 129 Receiving W: Napoleon 2-31; H: Rawlings 3-99, Woodburn 1-21

The visiting Westlake Wolverines, owned by the Huntingtown Hurricanes in lopsided fashion the last three years in the postseason, had just tied the contest at 7 with 59 seconds remaining in the first half thanks to an impressive, near-five-minute touchdown drive right after yielding one defensively.

In fact, the do-or-die affair was taking on the same look as both teams’ tight regular season encounter just four weeks earlier on the same Huntingtown field that Westlake prevailed in by a 14-7 outcome.

That was until the throw — of the year — occurred by Huntingtown senior quarterback Zach Piazza with a less than a minute before intermission, as the Hurricanes refused to play it safe with so little time left while starting the drive at their own 25-yard line.

A day after inking his national letter of intent to play shortstop for Wake Forest as Huntingtown’s standout baseball player, Piazza showcased his prized arm with a beautiful strike launched deep across the middle of the field to open receiver Bryan Rawlings, who had gotten a step on his man coverage while hauling in the pass perfectly in stride.

The speedy Rawlings was not going to be caught as he raced to the end zone the final 40 yards to complete the dazzling 75-yard touchdown connection, putting Huntingtown back up front on the one-play drive with 43 ticks remaining in the half.

Top-seeded Huntingtown never relinquished momentum, adding two more touchdowns in the second half while its ball-hawking defense shut down second-seeded Westlake, en route to a 29-7 victory, the Hurricanes storming their way to a dynamic fourth straight regional crown and berth in the state playoffs.

“That definitely gave us momentum,” Piazza said of the play of the game late in the first half before quickly looking to point credit elsewhere, “but our biggest factor was our defense. After [Westlake’s score], they didn’t allow another touchdown. And that was the key factor.”

The win lands the Hurricanes (11-1) back at the state playoffs where they travel to Baltimore County’s Milford Mill Academy (11-1) Saturday at 1 p.m. for the 3A state semifinals with a trip to Nov. 29’s state-title game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on the line.

“It says a lot about our kids,” Huntingtown first-year head coach Brendan Galligan said about his program boasting a fourth straight regional banner. “We have a lot of hard-working kids, they’re tough, they do what they have to do, they’re disciplined. They know what it takes to win this time of year.

“It’s hard to get through the county, it’s hard to get through the [Southern Maryland Athletic Conference] and it’s hard to get here [as a regional champion].”

He added, “Each [regional title] is different. You don’t celebrate too much because there are still some games ahead, but you appreciate how hard it is to get here.”

Huntingtown, seeded third in the state playoffs, lost in its only previous trip to the state final three years ago. Milford Mill, seeded second at states, has not played in a Maryland final since winning it all in 1987.

Though Friday’s game was more competitive than the outcome suggests, Huntingtown continued to have Westlake’s number in the postseason with another win by a comfortable margin for the fourth year in a row, three of the victories occurring in the regional final.

Last year, Huntingtown humbled Westlake 32-7 in the regional final. In 2010, it was a 35-14 triumph for Huntingtown over Westlake in the regional semifinal. The 2009 playoffs saw Huntingtown clobber Westlake, 46-0, in the regional final.

In fact, none of the Huntingtown-Westlake playoff clashes have ever ended closely. Westlake’s lone win in the five postseason meetings was a 35-0 shutout of Huntingtown in the 2007 regional semifinals.

“Four weeks ago we came out flat [against Westlake in the regular season] and wasn’t ready to play. We practiced hard [this past week] and looked what happened,” Huntingtown junior running back Arnez Bowens said after his game-high 159 rushing yards and pair of touchdowns on 24 carries. “Zach Piazza is like our playmaker on our team. Zach opened it up for me. If he has a run, he’ll take it. He believes in himself and his offensive line to hold the block for him to make big plays.”

Game-winning touchdown to end half

Piazza was hardly surprised Westlake (8-4) was not in a safer defensive package with the game knotted at seven in the final minute of the half and Huntingtown backed up inside its own territory. Westlake sophomore cornerback Marquis Moody had Rawlings one-on-one on the outside on the deep route.

“[Westlake] is well known for their man coverage and we didn’t think they were going to do anything different. We knew it was going to be man-on-man,” said Piazza, who had a defender bearing down on his back left shoulder while stepping up in the pocket as he released the textbook spiral of a pass to Rawlings. “Actually no, [I didn’t realize anyone was bearing down on me during the play]. I have total confidence n my offensive line, and I knew [Rawlings] would get to the ball. He’s extremely fast. He just caught it and didn’t look back.

“We knew that momentum had to carry over into the second half. We couldn’t lose it in the locker room. We just had to keep it going.”

Westlake first-year head coach Marlon Curtis added about the tide-turning play, “It was a mental mistake in coverage. We had a mental breakdown, and they were in the right play at the right time. They threw it, [the open receiver] was there. The kid capitalized, made a great play. We just didn’t do some of the small things collectively.

“There’s no fault in one man here or there. It’s just we didn’t respond how we needed to. We had them third and long a number of times, and we blow assignments.”

Piazza was an efficient 5 of 9 through the air for 129 yards and the pivotal touchdown.

“Zach’s a very talented kid. Obviously if you’re playing Division I baseball, you’re going to be a pretty talented kid,” the Huntingtown coach praised of his quarterback. “He’s quiet, but he’ll step on your throat if he gets a chance. He wants to win.”

During Huntingtown’s late touchdown drive in the third for a 22-7 lead, Piazza kept the drive alive on third and five with a 27-yard play-action keeper. He then followed that play with a 35-yard pass to Josh Woodburn, who made a quality run up the sideline to the Westlake 6.

That set up Bowens’ second touchdown run one play later on an easy six-yard burst into the end zone for a 22-7 Huntingtown advantage.

“We’ve been able to make plays,” Galligan continued about the key to Huntingtown’s success versus Westlake in the playoffs. “That was the big difference between the first time and the second time we played them [this year]. The first time this year we didn’t make many plays on offense, and we struggled to get off the field defensively.

“Our kids did a good job of fixing the problems from the first game, and we were able to make a few big plays, especially the one right before half. That was really big. We converted a lot of third downs. Defensively, we were able to get off the field, get some turnovers and play our style of football.”

The Huntingtown defense forced three interceptions by Jules Lucas, Matt Roller and Bryson Curtis during the final 12 minutes 26 seconds. Curtis ran his pick back 38 yards for the dagger touchdown of Westlake with four minutes left.

In Huntingtown’s regular season loss to Westlake, the Hurricanes lost the turnover battle. Friday, despite a pair of red-zone lost fumbles in the fourth, they were plus one in the turnover ratio.

“I believe so,” Roller said about his defense playing good enough to win a state title. “We’re focused more than previous years.”

The senior linebacker also had a sack in addition to his interception as his defense contained Westlake to just 90 total yards in the second half.

Westlake senior rusher Desmond Holley finished with 92 yards on 12 carries with his team’s lone touchdown on a two-yard scamper to tie the game at seven.

But there was little to celebrate after that for Westlake.

“They wanted it more,” an upset Holley simply said of Huntingtown.

Westlake was without junior starting quarterback Antwaine Carter, out of commission after sustaining a small fracture in his neck during the regular season finale at North Point.

Sophomore backup Alexander Roddy started at quarterback and played most of the regional final until giving way to seniors Marquel Lee and senior Tyler Bird under center in the fourth.

Roddy completed a key 14-yard pass to Michael Brooks on fourth and seventh at the Huntingtown 16 during Westlake’s touchdown drive, but none of the Westlake quarterbacks incurred much production outside of that play.

dcogle@somdnews.com