It took seven years. Seven years of frustration, disappointment and embarrassment. Seven years of bum breaks, bad bounces and blown calls. Seven years of losing leads, bad starts or seeing your star and team leader carried off the field to Shock Trauma. Seven years of ending your season convulsed on the turf in tears watching your opponents celebrate. Seven years of grief and losses suffered off the field even more painful and personal than those administered on it.
Seven years of state championship and regional final losses before a Quince Orchard football team would complete its quest for the school’s long-sought but maddeningly elusive third Maryland 4A football state championship—and it took one final gut-wrenching, soul-searching game to get there.
QO emerged as champions last Friday night after a tense and furiously fought 40-33 victory over North Point in Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis, but the victory wasn’t clinched until a squib kick by North Point fell harmlessly into the arms of QO’s senior linebacker and team leader Johnny Hodges with 14 seconds left. One final victory formation later, and the QO side could finally exult in relief and celebration.
“I’m super, super proud of our kids,” QO Coach John Kelley said at the postgame press conference. “We had some adversity. They scored on us first and the game was back and forth…. I was proud of our kids for being in that situation, sticking together and finishing it out …the right way.”
It was fitting that Hodges secured the final victory. No player better embodied QO’s recent history of torment and frustration than Hodges. A three-year starter and two-time captain, Hodges played as a sophomore in QO’s 2016 state final loss to Wise and watched last year’s final from the sidelines with a wrist injury as Wise wrested a fourth-quarter lead from the Cougars. Hodges inherited the Cougar legacy from an older brother who played during the era when QO lost the 2011 and 2012 state finals to Old Mill and Wise and dropped the regional final to neighborhood rival Northwest the next three years.
“That moment was pretty good,” said Hodges who led the QO defense with eight tackles. “It was really, really good. Just all the hard work we put in … all of the work, and to finally get it … it’s crazy.”
The Cougars entered this season confident that 2018 would be different. Adding to their motivation was the sudden death of Tyler Terry, a popular member of the 2016-17 squads who died last February from a previously undetected heart condition. The team dedicated this season to him, adorned their helmets with a decal of his number 6, and wore number 6 on their practice jerseys.
This was the second year in a row QO had dedicated its season to a fallen teammate. The 2017 Cougars lost Austin Cohen to bone cancer. And star running back Marquez Cooper, in addition to Terry, dedicated his season to an uncle and friend Josh Snyder, a Northwest student, who died in a car crash this year.
QO (13-1) played with fury leading up to the final, administering payback to the teams that ended their seasons the past six years. First, they dismantled Northwest 35-0 in the regional final. Then they toppled three-time state final nemesis Wise 31-6 in the semi, attacking the Pumas on both sides of the ball.
Beating Wise was particularly satisfying for the phalanx of football alumni who supported their former teammates on the sidelines and joined in the jubilant postgame celebration.
“They’re doing something that we couldn’t get done,” said Class of 2018 offensive lineman Mikey Fierstein, now playing at Division I Merrimack College. “It’s great to come back … to see guys that I played with and played against finally do what we’re supposed to do and beating Wise.”
Many observers expected another dominant performance from the Cougars in the final. QO had defeated North Point convincingly in the 2017 state semifinal, and this North Point team, notwithstanding their 13-0 record, was not considered as strong as last year’s. The stage seemed set for QO to complete their rampage through the playoffs and triumph as state champions.
But if that was the script, someone forgot to give it to North Point. They played loose and aggressively with nothing to lose in the school’s first state championship appearance. Junior quarterback Asa Williams tossed four touchdowns for 347 yards against the usually stingy QO pass defense, aided in part by QO’s lack of pass pressure, blown coverages and potential interceptions that slipped through QO defenders’ fingers.
Perhaps, too, the Cougars were still basking in the glow of thrashing Wise.
“It felt like we won the state championship last week when we beat (Wise),” Kelley acknowledged, “but … we had to turn around and play another really, really good football team the next week. … It’s hard to refocus a group of kids after a huge win and then you got to go do it again.”
North Point got QO’s attention on the game’s opening drive, as Williams hit the first of his three TD passes to slick wide receiver Malik Lawrence. QO responded with a ground-based 75-yard drive capped by sophomore quarterback Brian Plummer’s five-yard TD run. The teams traded two more touchdowns, including the first of three by Cooper, and with 1:39 before halftime Plummer connected with tight end Max Bernard on a 19-yard rollout to give QO a 20-13 halftime lead.
QO appeared to take control in the second half. A short kickoff and Hodges’ return gave them possession on the North Point 49, and they ran seven straight running plays—six to Cooper—before the diminutive back broke several tackles and powered into the end zone from the 12 to extend QO’s lead. Less than two minutes later, Williams fumbled and QO defensive end Kevon Carter-Hackey scooped it up and sprinted 61 yards to open a 33-13 advantage.
The large QO Red Army contingent in attendance cheered and the QO sideline sensed victory. But again, North Point refused to play their part.
Another Williams to Lawrence scoring pass at the end of third quarter, a QO drive thwarted when a 52-yard pass play to Chris Webb was called back for an ineligible downfield penalty, and Williams’ fourth touchdown pass of the night with 5:47 left and suddenly it was 33-26. The QO sideline was tense, coaches were yelling at players who had missed assignments, teammates were urging other teammates who were suffering leg cramps to continue. Longtime QO fans remembered previous fourth quarter collapses in state finals.
With 5:15 left, QO with the ball on the North Point 35, and everything they worked for on the line, QO entrusted their season and their legacy to their heart and soul—their offensive line and the 5-foot-7, 170-pound junior Cooper. In nine straight plays they gave the ball to Cooper—nothing fancy, just power, QO football. And with 1:34 left and QO at the four, the tiny dynamo ran left, got hit at the two, and went full airborne to hit paydirt.
“I just had to do it for all of them,” said Cooper of Terry and the others to whom he dedicated his season. “Angels watching over me.”
“I always feel confident when Marquez is in the backfield,” said offensive lineman Logan Moyer. Cooper’s 243 yards rushing on 39 carries put him over 2,000 yards for the year, and his three touchdowns brought this season total to 39.
QO players and fans exploded again in celebration. But again, North Point didn’t quit. In seven quick plays aided by a QO personal foul, they scored again on a Williams keeper.
The game, the road to redemption, the season for Tyler came down to that onside kick. And Hodges, steady and reliable as always, safely tucked it away.
“It was for 6,” said linebacker Aaron Green, who played most of last year’s final against Wise with a broken arm. “That’s why I was crying at the end. … I just had to cry, and tears of joy.”
The scores are now settled. The curse is over. The demons have been exorcised. The slate is wiped clean. The unfinished business has been completed.
For Kelley and his coaching staff, the state title provides a measure of vindication. In his fifth year as head coach and QO’s defensive coordinator for five years before that, Kelley has suffered through season-ending defeats, gritted his teeth and grimly vowed to start over.
“We were at a tough spot as a program,” Kelley acknowledged. “We lost this game four (times) in a row, and we were becoming the Buffalo Bills. … Trust me, that weighs on me.”
“For the last 10 years I’ve been at Quince Orchard, every season has ended with me watching our kids cry. … That’s hard as a coach,” he said. “You start to doubt yourself. … I always tell myself that I don’t want to see my team cry again at the end of the season. I want to see my team happy. I want to see them like tonight.”
The 2018 QO football team is a fairly typical, sometimes rambunctious group of teenage boys. Hodges calls them “us knuckleheads.” Kelley described them as “super competitive. … They try to beat each other in everything. Sometimes it’s annoying.” Their high spirits sometimes boil over and lead to penalties or mistakes.
But for a group of boys, they had to carry a lot of baggage this season. They were asked to redeem a program that was beginning to doubt itself. They were expected to do this not only for themselves but for players who wore the uniform long before this year’s team members were even in high school. And fate handed them more personal tragedy than teenage boys should have to bear.
What makes them remarkable is that they accepted these burdens—thrived on them really. Instead of yielding to them, they drew strength and inspiration from them. They put in their work. They shared their legacy with their newcomers. They built a brotherhood. They learned from adversity. They became resilient.
And with the guidance, and often the tough love, of their coaches, they channeled their energy and passion, picked up the burdens left by others, came together for a cause greater than themselves, and accomplished something to celebrate, cherish, and share with an entire community.
They will have future challenges to prepare for ahead. But for now they can savor the moment, the memories, and the achievement and know that the lessons they learned will help them for the rest of their lives.