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BALTIMORE The Huntingtown football team appeared to be well on its way to the Class 3A state championship, but River Hill running back Justin Arn spoiled what could have been a county-wide celebration.

River Hill 18, Huntingtown 14

Huntingtown 7 7 0 0River Hill 6 0 6 6First quarterH Bowens 2 run (Reeves kick), 5:24RH Osong 1 run (pass failed), 9:20Second quarter H Bowens 1 run (Reeves kick), 2:49Third quarterRH Arn 10 run (run failed), 7:37Fourth quarterRH Arn 20 run (kick failed), 3:37Team statsH (17 first downs, 37-156 rushing, 138 passing, 2-0 fumbles, 7-64 penalties)RH (18 first downs, 40-215 rushing, 147 passing, 2-1 fumbles, 5-45 penalties)Top individual performersRushing H: Bowens 20-115, Rowe 5-33; RH: Griffin 14-90, Arm 15-85, Osong 7-25 Passing H: Piazza 14-23-2 138; RH: Altman 9-17-0 147 Receiving H: Rawlings 8-58, Woodburn 4-49, Rowe 1-17; RH: Arn 2-66, Ball 2-37

Arn scored two second-half touchdowns, the latter a 20-yarder early in the fourth quarter, to help the Hawks repeat as champions with an 18-14 come-from-behind win over the Hurricanes on Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium.

“It was a great high school football game, a great high school football atmosphere and all day at school it was electric,” Huntingtown first-year head coach Brendan Galligan said at a somber postgame news conference. “I wish we could have brought back a bigger trophy [than the smaller runner-up award] for them, but I’m proud of these guys.”

The Hawks (14-0 overall) captured their second straight state title and have won their last 24 games, though it certainly wasn’t easy against a valiant Huntingtown team.

The Hurricanes (12-2) took a 14-6 lead into halftime and never trailed until Arn’s eventual game-winning score 3 minutes 37 seconds into the final quarter. Arn also scored on a 10-yard run in the third quarter and finished with 85 yards on 15 carries. River Hill rushed for 215 yards, compared to 156 for Huntingtown.

“When you have good players, when you have good coaches and when you have good community support, it makes life really easy and especially this group right here, the seniors, they did everything we asked them to do,” Galligan said. “That’s the part that really hurts me the most, that we can’t go out as state champs. That hurts, but they did everything it took, I’m really proud of these guys, I love these guys. This is just a nasty, no-nonsense hard-working group that had good senior leadership.”

But the Hurricanes didn’t go out quietly as they mounted a last-minute charge.

Trailing 18-14, Huntingtown got the ball back and promptly drove 42 yards in eight plays, with quarterback Zach Piazza (two runs, six passes) having a hand in each play.

But Arn also proved his defensive worth when he picked off Piazza at the River Hill 12-yard line and returned the ball 18 yards.

It appeared River Hill would all but run out the clock when it took over at its own 30 and promptly marched 41 yards and chewed up much of the clock. But the Hurricanes gave themselves one final chance when they took possession after stopping Arn for no gain on fourth down.

“We feel very confident with each other and we got the ball back and we knew it was better than not having the ball,” Piazza said. “We knew we needed to come down and score.”

Last-gasp drive

With the ball at their own 29, no timeouts and 62 seconds remaining, Piazza went to work.

After two incompletions, he methodically hooked up with receiver Bryan Rawlings on four quick out patterns that put the ball at the River Hill 40 with 17 seconds to go. But Piazza’s pass to Rawlings in the end zone was picked off by the Hawks’ Evan Griffin.

“There were just a few seconds left, so I had to get the ball deep,” Piazza said of his final pass attempt of his high school career. “I should have waited a little longer.”

“We practice that all the time,” Galligan said of the last-minute drive. “I had 100 percent confidence we would score. I was shocked we didn’t.”

It was the Hawks’ fourth state championship since 2007.

“We practiced hard all week on game recognition and getting the right blocking assignments, running the ball and catching the football and we just came up short,” Huntingtown senior lineman Riley Cannon said.

“We practiced hard and we played hard and I feel bad for those guys that we fell just short,” said Huntingtown senior running back/linebacker Colton Rowe as cheers from River Hill reverberated from the next room. “I thought we deserved it, I thought we worked hard all year for this and we just fell short.”

Huntingtown played the first half as if it was the champions. The Hurricanes grabbed the early 7-0 lead when it began its first offensive series at their own 45, thanks in large part to an eight-yard punt following River Hill’s first possession.

Ten plays and 55 yards later, junior running back Arnez Bowens plowed into the end zone from two yards out to open the scoring. The key play of the drive was Piazza’s eight-yard run on fourth down and 3.

River Hill came right back and scored Stephan Osong’s two-yard run to cap an 11-play, 72-yard drive. The extra point failed and the Hurricanes led, 7-6.

Huntingtown wasted no time extending its lead as Bowens’ one-yard score was the exclamation point on a 15-play, 80-yard, clock-eating 5:29 drive. The key play of the drive was a roughing the kicker penalty on River Hill on fourth and eight from the Huntingtown 32. Piazza also completed a pair of third down conversion passes, one each to Rawlings and Rowe.

The touchdowns and his 115 rushing yards 82 in the first half were a type of retribution for Bowens after his rough outing against Milford Mill of Baltimore County in the state semifinals.

“He had a really rough game; he fumbled a few times against Milford Mill and really wasn’t himself,” Galligan said. “He was really distraught after that game and he came out this week and worked really hard. He ran like the kid we expected him to tonight. He’s a violent runner; I know I wouldn’t want to tackle him if I was playing defense.”

Golden opportunity

Huntingtown had a good chance to add to its lead when Rowe knocked the ball out of a River Hill runner’s arms and Hurricanes teammate Robert Ridgewell recovered at the Hurricanes’ 49, but Huntingtown’s offense stalled and were forced to punt.

River Hill’s attempt to trim the Huntingtown’s lead before halftime came up short when Alex Potocko’s 28-yard field goal missed the mark.

The Hurricanes took a 14-6 lead into the halftime break, but Galligan knew the Hawks would come out tough over the final 24 minutes.

“I was really proud of the way we started,” said Galligan, who gave plenty of credit for Huntingtown’s good start to his scout team. “We started off strong but knew they were going to come back. Now they’re the defending two-time state champ, so they wouldn’t give up easily so they wouldn’t give up and they would be running up and down the field.”

The second half was all River Hill as it held Huntingtown to just 32 yards on 15 carries after the Hurricanes erupted for 136 yards on the ground in the first half.

“I’m just really proud of our guys,” Galligan said. “You talk about our effort, and every single guy up here [on the postgame podium] said it, it’s not about ability it’s about how much you’re willing to empty your bucket and how much you’re willing to give. And they’ve been great, they’ve given us everything.”

“Everybody gave such a great effort,” said Huntingtown linebacker Josh Woodburn, who was all over the Hawks and made a shoe-string tackle to stop a River Hill two-point conversion in the second half. “I can’t believe we won’t be practicing on Monday.”

Galligan said it was a wonderful first-year ride as head coach but deflected all the praise.

“I knew we had an experienced team coming back and we had good players, good coaches, good administrators and good community support,” said Galligan, who was an assistant coach since 2004. “Everything was there and they make me look good, but it’s all the kids, all the other coaches. They made this, it’s definitely not me.”

“Ever since Day 1, I felt we were a team,” Bowens said, “this was the kind of players we had.”

Piazza said he was, “very proud. No one thought we would do anything and we made it this far. I wanted to make it further.”

Galligan said 2012 will not be a one-year wonder for the Hurricanes.

“At Huntingtown High School, we’ve won a lot the last few years, but we aren’t getting state recognition,” he said. “I wanted the recognition for these kids, this team to get over the hump and unfortunately we didn’t do it but we’ll bounce back. We’ll bounce back, I guarantee you that.”

mreid@somdnews.com