Trent Connolly (Huntingtown football)

Quarterback Trent Connolly and the Huntingtown Hurricanes start the 2019 Class 3A South Region playoffs as the top seed and will host eighth-seeded J.M. Bennett in a first round contest tonight.

Heading into the final week of the regular season in 2018, Huntingtown’s football team needed a win to close out a 9-1 campaign and lock up the top seed in the Class 3A South Region playoffs. With the win, the Hurricanes would have remained home as long as their playoff lives extended until the state championship game.

But Huntingtown dropped an 8-3 decision to St. Charles in the season’s final week, and thus ended up playing its first playoff game in Prince George’s County versus Potomac on a Saturday afternoon. The Hurricanes regrouped and eventually advanced to the state semifinals, but it was a lesson that served this year’s team well.

With last week’s 47-6 win at Great Mills, Huntingtown put the final touch on a perfect regular season that not only earned the team the top seed in the 3A South, but also the top point average in the entire classification, thus ensuring the Hurricanes could have another four games on their field should they keep winning.

“Last year we were in pretty good shape and dropped the last one and put ourselves in a bind,” Huntingtown head coach Paul Friel said. “We talked about that quite a bit going into the end of the season, how important it is to win out so we can have home-field advantage. We’re excited to take it game by game and will do everything we can to make sure we’re executing at the best of our ability.”

The journey ahead is an arduous road, however, and the path is slightly different than in the past. With the playoffs expanded to eight teams from four per region this season, teams will play the first two rounds in the region brackets before being re-seeded for the state quarterfinals.

For top-seeded Huntingtown (9-0 overall), which opens its postseason at 7 tonight against the visiting and eighth-seeded J.M Bennett Clippers from Wicomico County (3-6), that would mean seeing another Southern Maryland Athletic Conference rival for a second time this season should they advance, as the Hurricanes would play the winner of fifth-seeded Northern (5-4) and fourth-seeded St. Charles (7-2) in the next round. The Spartans host the Patriots at 7 tonight.

Huntingtown, which pitched three shutouts this season, allowed just three teams to score in double figures. Northern and St. Charles were two of them, while North Point (7-2), the No. 3 seed in the region, was the third.

“It’s going to be tough,” Friel said. “We’re probably going to have to replay teams we’ve already played in order to advance, but everybody is kind of going through that.”

St. Charles and Northern will be playing for the fourth time over the past two seasons when they hook up tonight. So far, the Spartans own wins in both of the regular season meetings, while Northern snagged a dramatic 15-14 postseason win in overtime last year.

“Last year this was the team that ended our season and we don’t want that to happen again,” St. Charles head coach Patrick Orndoff said, “but what we’re really focusing on is who we are this year. We’re really a little bit different team, and they’re a little bit of a different team. We got them in the first game. We like what we did that night. We’re playing a little bit better football now than we were then.”

But clearly there are no secrets between teams that are as familiar with each other as the Spartans and Patriots are. St. Charles defeated Northern 27-22 on Sept. 27, repelling a late Patriots’ drive that could have snagged another dramatic win on the field at St. Charles. And just as there are no secrets between the teams, there are no secrets as to what the winning formula for tonight’s meeting looks like, either.

“We have to get them off the field on third down,” Orndoff said. “I think that’s a big key. ... We want to control the ball, control the clock. Obviously we can’t have turnovers or penalties. Those are our key focuses offensively. And defensively it’s about minimizing the gains they get, maximizing the mistakes that they make, and getting them off the field on third down.”

North Point, the 4A state runner-up a season ago, hosts sixth-seeded Northeast of Anne Arundel County (4-5), while seventh-seeded Chesapeake of Anne Arundel (4-5) will travel to second-seeded Oxon Hill (7-2) to round out the 3A South first-round games. All are scheduled for 7 tonight.

While North Point isn’t rolling into the postseason with an unblemished record like in years past, the team, which could easily have come out on top in both of its defeats (21-14 to Huntingtown in Week 3 and 27-21 in overtime to St. Charles in Week 7), still plans to be a factor in this year’s festivities.

“Overall, I think they’re in a good spot,” North Point head coach Tom Petre said after his team’s regular season-ending 41-20 win at Northern last Friday. “We talked this week with the guys that we felt like we were in a better spot than in some other points in the year.”

A year ago, Huntingtown entered the playoffs with a group that had never experienced the postseason and just the year before had suffered through a 2-8 campaign. After ultimately playing all the way to the state semifinals last year, this year’s team has ample experience and is prepared for all of the little things that the playoffs bring.

“Now they’re used to staying after, the longer season,” Friel said. “They talk about last year and going deeper in the playoffs, practicing in the cold and hurry up and get down there [to the practice field] to try to beat the sun going down. It’s not anything new. It’s not like last year where we were running all over trying to get used to practice with the lights on and all those kinds of things that go along with it.

“They’re excited and they know that they belong. Last year was kind of, ‘Holy cow, we’re here. Let’s just make it as far as we can.’ We know last year going into the final game for us, we played the top team and played toe-to-toe with them. They also know that they can be knocked off at any time, so practice has been really sharp and focused. I don’t think they’re going to play down to anybody.”

2A South up for grabs

While Huntingtown now has a team full of playoff veterans, Patuxent is making a return the postseason for the first time since 2016 as the No. 4 seed in the 2A South.

After dropping their first two games this season, the Panthers (7-2) reeled off seven straight wins and enter the playoffs with a good bit of momentum.

Opposing Patuxent in 7 p.m. first-round contest tonigth will be fifth-seeded La Plata (6-3). The teams met on Oct. 4 with Patuxent taking a 21-14 decision.

“We’re sticking with we just have to go 1-0 this week, prepare for the opponent that we’re facing,” Patuxent head coach Nick Allen said. “We want to be able to come out and play our style of football. We want to be able to get downhill and run the ball, throw the ball whenever they try to load the box and play tough defense. I think we’ve changed some personnel on defense since the last time we played them. It will be a good matchup. They’re a pretty dynamic offensive team, have a lot of weapons.”

Seventh-seeded Calvert (4-5) travels to No. 2 seed Lackey (8-1) in another matchup of SMAC rivals at 7 tonight. Lackey handled the Cavaliers 35-14 in the teams’ regular season meeting on Oct. 4.

Westlake (4-5), the region’s sixth seed, is slated to travel to Potomac (8-1) to take on the third-seeded Wolverines at 6 tonight, while eighth-seeded Crossland (3-6) will play at top-seeded Douglass (9-0) in an all-Prince George’s County matchup at 1 p.m. tomorrow to round out the region’s first-round games.

After the rocky start to the season, Patuxent slowly morphed into something completely different as the season progressed. Three of the Panthers’ first four wins were one-score games, with two of them coming by a mere point (27-26 to Thomas Stone in Week 3 and 7-6 to Northern in Week 6). But the team’s last three wins to close the regular season were all decided by at least 14 points, and the last five of the team’s wins all came against playoff teams. So, playoff experience or not, Allen feels his group is battle-tested.

“Their confidence it through the room right now, because it hasn’t been like we’ve just been coming out and rolling people,” Allen said. “We get behind and fight and come back, or we get a lead and then the other team claws back in it and we have to be able to control the ball and get one more score to put it away, or any of those scenarios that these kids have to fight through. That’s probably the best thing you can do to prepare for a playoff-type scenario. No team you’re going to play in the playoffs is just going to be a cakewalk.”

Twitter: @cfhphilly

Twitter: @cfhphilly