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BALTIMORE — Making his initial remarks in the press conference following the Class 2A state football championship game Saturday, Patuxent head coach Steve Crounse paused briefly.

The Middletown Knights, in full-on celebration mode, were walking down the hall outside Patuxent’s press room.

“It’s tough hearing that right now,” Crounse said.

Capping a season that had seen the Panthers consistently find a way to overcome whatever obstacles were placed in their way, the team could not find the answer in the state final at M&T Bank Stadium, falling 17-3 to the Knights from Frederick County.

For Middletown, it marked a third consecutive 2A state championship. For Patuxent, it was a disappointing end to what had been a magical journey.

“Tough one, this is not how we envisioned it,” Crounse said. “The defense kept us in it most of the game against a team that probably averaged 35 or better a game.

“Our defense rose to the occasion time and again. They had a chance to blow us out in the first half, and they didn’t do it. Tonight came down to the line of scrimmage, and we couldn’t control the line of scrimmage enough to get anything going consistently.”

Middletown (14-0 overall) scored 10 first-quarter points to build a lead it would never surrender.

After forcing Patuxent (13-1) into a three-and-out on its first possession, the Knights took over for their first series on the Patuxent 47-yard line.

Working with the short field, Middletown earned a couple of first downs and capped the drive with Nick Welch’s 28-yard field goal.

Patuxent got its offense moving on the ensuing possession, crossing midfield on Tyler Crounse’s 20-yard pass to Rafiq Douglas.

But two plays later, on a Greg Leonard rush that would have moved the ball to the Middletown 40 to set up a third down and short, Patuxent was called for an illegal block penalty that moved the ball back to midfield.

The Knights then sacked Crounse — one of the night’s common themes as Middletown had nine sacks on the game — and picked off Crounse on the ensuing third-and-long.

The interception return left Middletown on the Patuxent 27, and the Knights needed just five plays to score the game’s first touchdown on Tim Pirrone’s 7-yard pass to Peter Heon to increase the lead to 10-0 with 18 seconds remaining in the first quarter.

“We were down 20-8 to Lackey, and we came back. One of the most physical teams we played all year, and we came back. We had hope,” Patuxent’s Joey Parsons said of the situation the team was in. “We never put our heads down. We tried to be leaders on the field to keep everybody hype and keep the defense motivated and moving.”

Patuxent’s defense was up to the task, shutting down Middletown for the second and third quarters.

The Panthers’ offense finally got rolling in the third quarter, when big runs by Leonard and Douglas helped to push the Panthers inside the Middletown 10.

Ultimately a third-down sack by Middletown’s Rick Leonard, a 6-foot-7 Florida State commit, forced the Panthers to settle for an Eric Chaconas 32-yard field goal, cutting the deficit to 10-3.

Early in the fourth quarter, Patuxent again drove into Middletown territory. But needing 7 yards on fourth down from the Middletown 47, the Panthers elected to go for it and came up empty when Tyler Crounse’s pass intended for Douglas fell incomplete with 5 minutes 44 seconds left to play.

Middletown, which had not earned a single first down since the mid-stages of the second quarter, then put together its best drive of the game. It converted on three third downs and consumed nearly the rest of the game clock.

Brad Rinehart capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run with just 57 seconds remaining, increasing the lead to an insurmountable 17-3 and sealing the Knights’ third consecutive state championship.

“I definitely thought we were going to have a chance to come back at the end there,” said Patuxent’s Mike Henry of his mindset prior to Middletown’s final touchdown. “Our crowd was behind us, and we were driving. We had momentum, and we just couldn’t consistently make plays to score or get the ball back at the end there.

“It was an amazing ride. We definitely felt the community behind us all year. The community and our team was just a big family. I never felt so much a part of a family, besides my own, as with the football family. It’s incredible.”

Though the season ultimately ended in heartbreak, the journey to get there was historic for the Patuxent program.

The Panthers won 13 games and reached the program’s first state championship game since 2001.

“The ride’s been phenomenal. It’s been something a lot of us dreamed of, but you never really expect it to be reality until you’re actually doing it. We had a lot of hiccups during the time, a lot of close games, a lot of comebacks, a lot of dogfights. It’s just been crazy that we even made it this far,” Douglas said. “It’s kind of like a movie. We had one of our community leaders, a football coach that coached all of us [Gary Wynn], pass away during the season. We had a little bit of drama during the season, Weeks 6 and 7. We overcame everything. It’s like a movie. It’s ridiculous. I’m blessed to play on a team like this.”

Steve Crounse said, “I’m really proud of our kids. All these seniors that are here right now ... they’re the reason we’re here. They decided a long time ago that they wanted to be different than the other teams we’ve had. That’s why we’re standing in this venue tonight. That’s why we got an opportunity to play for a state championship. That’s why we’re in the last high school football game in 2013. It’s all because of my leadership that I had. These kids didn’t quit to the very end of the game. I’m eternally indebted to them, and they’re going to be a part of my family forever. This is a tough memory right now, but as time goes on, I think we’ll cherish the season that we had.”

astates@somdnews.com