Shawne Merriman stood quietly behind the Frederick Douglass High School football team’s sideline, watching Saturday’s 2A South Region championship game between the Eagles and Gwynn Park through aviator sunglasses and a flat-brimmed hat. He walked up and down the edge of the field, keeping pace with the game and every so often checking his phone, but still lending a watchful eye toward the game.
And even Merriman, a former first round pick in the National Football League draft by the San Diego Chargers, had to be impressed by what he saw unfold from his alma mater.
The Eagles put on a clinic of sound tackling, impact hits and turnover inducing pressure in a convincing 28-6 victory against Gwynn Park, the same team that had beaten them 39-16 in September.
“We didn’t play with that type of desperation the first time,” Douglass coach J.C. Pinkney said. “And it showed.”
And if you lump special teams in with the defense, it especially showed. Paul Harris returned the opening kick 85 yards for a touchdown.
“I was on my game,” Harris said. “I just wanted to come out and show everybody I was going to be on it today.”
As for the defense, the Eagles forced an interception, sacked Gwynn Park’s Jay Adams four times for a loss of 14 yards and knocked loose three fumbles — two of which they would recover. Linebacker Matthew Paul also lost a tooth.
“Smile,” said a laughing Harris to Paul, who obliged, revealing a gap where his front right tooth should have been. Its sacrifice didn’t come in vain.
Gwynn Park’s offense seemed to find its footing after a first quarter in which it managed just 14 yards on 17 plays. The Yellow Jackets were driving early in the second, setting up a first-and-goal from the Douglass 4, when running back Joe Hayman took a carry up the left side. Paul flew into the hole that Hayman had been cutting towards and hit him so hard that his tooth, protected by mouth guard and all, flew out. But so did the ball, which Douglass piled on top of.
“Somebody had to step up,” Paul said. “Fortunately, it was me.”
That was the beginning to a steady diet of hits that would have the Yellow Jackets second guessing themselves nearly every time they crossed the middle of the field.
Midway through the second quarter, Adams tossed a screen out towards the left, but his pass was a few yards backwards, leaving his receiver, now technically considered a running back, open to contact prior to touching the ball. Devonte Williams made sure he was clear of that, lining up a blindside hit that left the Gwynn Park receiver staring up at the cloudless Upper Marlboro sky for a few extra seconds.
In truth, Williams could have just as easily picked the ball off and taken it back for a touchdown to put the Eagles up 28-0. But the message he sent with the hit lingered longer than the sting of a quick touchdown would have.
The Yellow Jackets were called for an illegal motion on the ensuing play as multiple receivers were shuffling around. On the snap after that, Adams was nearly intercepted as he hurried to throw a pass over the middle. One quarter later, Ricardo Dallis finally hung on to an Adams pass that got tipped up into the secondary. Devin Butler quickly turned the short field from the interception into six Douglass points.
“They came out ready to play,” Gwynn Park coach Danny Hayes said. “We made a ton of mistakes, man. It was the same thing they did in the first game. You can’t make those types of mistakes and expect to be the victors at the end of the game.”
Those mistakes, especially in the bunches that they came in on Saturday, were uncharacteristic of the Yellow Jackets. Gwynn Park entered the contest averaging more than 35 points per game, including four efforts that eclipsed 40, and Hayman, normally a sure thing near the end zone, had notched 13 touchdowns on the year.
So maybe it was Merriman’s imposing sideline presence that had the Douglass defense playing like the team that had posted seven shutouts prior to Saturday’s game. Or maybe it was a mental edge that Pinkney credited as the contributing reason. Either way, the Eagles are going to need more of it next Friday when they travel to Baltimore to take on Edmondson in the state semifinals.
“We’ve been winning enough games to get in,” Pinkney said. “Now, it’s time to make our mark on the tournament and hopefully come home with the big trophy.”