There wasn’t a person on the Huntingtown Hurricanes football team who did not know what the overwhelming majority of the state thought of their chances in Friday night’s Class 3A state semifinal against the visiting Damascus Hornets, a perennial power with some of the top recruits in the nation.
There also wasn’t a person on Huntingtown’s team who cared about what anyone else thought.
“Leading up through the week I honestly believe everyone on our team believed we were going to win that game,” Huntingtown senior Clay Wargo said. “No one else might have, but each one of my teammates and myself truly believed we were going to win the game.”
And for a half the Hurricanes looked in prime position to do so, tied with their guests 14-14 and receiving the ball to open the second half. But Huntingtown lost starting quarterback Trent Connolly to injury at the end of the first half and eventually succumbed to its Montgomery County foe by a heartbreaking 21-14 count.
Damascus advances to play Frederick County’s Linganore in the 3A state championship game on Thursday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. Linganore defeated Mervo of Baltimore 27-25 in Friday’s other state semifinal.
Damascus (11-2 overall) opened the scoring on the game’s third series, reaching the end zone on a 59-yard pass from Michael O’Neil to Chris Shaw 6 minutes 1 second into the game. But Huntingtown (12-1) provided an immediate answer, as after Noah Kuntz returned the ensuing kickoff near midfield the Hurricanes marched 53 yards to pay dirt. The drive featured a 29-yard completion from Connolly to Cameron Dalrymple, which was followed four plays later by Connolly’s 3-yard rush across the goal line. Bryce LaFollette’s extra point knotted the score at 7 with 3:18 left in the opening period.
After forcing a punt on what could have been a quick three-and-out on the following Damascus possession, Huntingtown muffed the punt and the Hornets recovered at the Huntingtown 38. The visitors capitalized, grinding out seven runs to eventually surge back in front on Shaw’s 1-yard run early in the second quarter.
Again, Huntingtown tied the score, this time on a 95-yard connection between Connolly and North Carolina State recruit Anthony Smith. The score remained tied at 14 at the half, but Connolly was hurt just before the half to deal a critical blow to the Hurricanes. Kuntz came on to replace Connolly in the second half and the Hurricanes did move the ball at times, but never were able to seriously threaten.
“I actually felt like we were starting to get momentum,” Huntingtown head coach Paul Friel said of his thoughts heading into the half. “We were starting to figure out what was there, what wasn’t there and how they were adjusting their defense to where we started feeling good about a couple plays. It still would have been a battle, but at least we started thinking, ‘OK, we can’t do this, we can do that.’ Defensively, we made adjustments and I felt like [Damascus] had a tough time getting things going.”
Neither team was able to get much going offensively in the second half, but Damascus was able to put together a 63-yard drive to score what was ultimately the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The Hornets mixed up nine plays, recovered two of their own fumbles on the trek, and went in front to stay on O’Neil’s 7-yard pass to Brendan Hess in back left corner of the end zone on a third down-and-goal play. Behind 21-14 with 7:28 remaining, Huntingtown was never able to cross midfield again.
“In the first half we had a couple mistakes that they capitalized on, but we came back and tied it up,” Friel said. “Then we had a crucial injury with our quarterback going out at half, but they never gave up. They battled. We converted first downs, got some drives going.
“We were out of sync little bit, but like they’ve done all year, they never let anything bother them. They just keep playing as hard as they can.”
With Clemson commits in senior Bryan Bresee and junior Ryan Linthicum headlining the Damascus roster, the Hurricanes could have easily been intimidated. Instead, they hung toe-to-toe until time ran out.
“It didn’t faze our kids,” Friel said. “Their kids are very good. They’re huge and they’re good players and they had good players across the board, but our kids are very good, too. It just ... An injury like that kind of throws you a little bit. But they battled all the way to the end.”
“Going into it we knew it was going to be tough,” added Huntingtown senior Jack Rosnage, one of the Hurricanes’ stalwarts on defense the entire season. “After halftime when it was tied we knew we were still in it. I knew from the start we had a fighting chance against this team. They have the players, but so do we. We just came out on bottom and they came out on top.”
After reaching the state semifinals a year ago, the goal for Huntingtown was clear from the season’s inception. And while the team did not reach its ultimate goal, it delivered everything its coach thought it would.
“It’s exactly the way I figured it would be. They’re such great team players,” Friel said. “No one ever had an ego. That never happened. Even at the end when we told them at halftime that Trent was out, they were like, ‘Step up, Noah. Let’s go.’ The whole mentality was all about we can do anything we want if we stick together as a team. And they did and they almost pulled this one off.”
The conclusion was not desired, but the journey to get there was everything the Hurricanes wanted it to be.
“I loved it,” Rosnage said. “It was one of the best seasons I’ve ever played in football. I’ve loved this team, the coaching staff, and I couldn’t ask for anything better. We just came up short.”
“We all just really enjoyed every day, step by step,” added Wargo. “We weren’t necessarily worried about what the end result was, we just knew what he had to do to get there. Coach Friel would say, ‘Step by step we’re going to play as champions together.’ Truly, throughout the season every day we did play like champions together.”