In a world of constant change, it’s nice to have some seasonal rituals you can depend on: rituals like leaves changing colors in autumn, children eating candy on the day after Halloween, and Quince Orchard playing Northwest on the Friday night before Thanksgiving for the Maryland 4A West division football championship.
For the sixth time in the past seven years, neighborhood rivals Quince Orchard and Northwest square off this Friday with the winner advancing to the state semifinals and the loser ending their season frustrated, disappointed and humbled.
The Cougars have won the past two years on their way to the 2016 and 2017 state title games in Annapolis, where they lost both times to Wise.
But it’s what happened in 2013, 2014 and 2015 that sticks painfully in QO head coach John Kelley’s mind. In those years Northwest upset QO in the regional final at the Cougar Dome, even though the Cougars had beaten them each year in their regular season match up.
“I just don’t like losing,” Kelley said last Friday after QO won their opening round playoff game 42-10 over Richard Montgomery, “especially losing like we did three years in a row to the same team. That’s something I’m never, ever going to forget.”
Asked if he thought his players knew how much Friday night’s game means to him, Kelley said, “If they don’t, they will.”
QO enters the contest with a 10-1 record, ranked in the top 10 in the DMV by the Washington Post, and winners of their last seven games by a combined score of 322-24, including four shutouts. Three weeks ago, they beat Northwest by a convincing 41-6 margin.
The Cougars are led by a punishing, aggressive defense and a relentless running game behind an undersized but mobile offensive line and the magic of junior Marquez Cooper, who many MoCo football fans consider the best running back in the county.
Cooper has scored a school record 33 touchdowns so far this season and gained 1,584 yards, averaging over nine yards per carry. Friday night he scored four first half touchdowns on runs of 12, one, two, and two yards to put the game out of reach for Richard Montgomery.
Cooper gives credit for his success to his blockers and says he is motivated by his family and by memories of an uncle and two close friends who died in the past year—former QO teammate Tyler Terry and Northwest student Josh Snyder.
His blockers say they love blocking for Cooper.
“It’s great,” said junior tight end Max Bernard.
“It’s awesome,” said senior guard Damian Brunzell.
“Amazing feeling,” added senior tackle Jack Williamson.
Asked if they could feel when Cooper was running behind them, junior fullback Ryan Jones said, “You can feel him on your back.”
Senior guard Logan Moyer (a recent commit to Washington & Lee University) said, “He’s probably ahead of us.”
The smallest of the linemen, junior center Thomas DeCastro said he has to work especially hard because of his size at 5 feet 10 inches and 205 pounds and “be someone with a lot of attitude.”
“He’s a dog,” one of his line mates joked.
“A mongoose,” said another.
QO has also received valuable contributions from three players who filled in for injured starters.
Junior linebacker/safety Charles Bell VI became the prime punt and kick returner several weeks ago and has responded with three touchdown returns. “I see a hole and I just use my speed to burst through it,” said Bell. “I’m gonna find the hole.”
Junior Toddreis Baltimore has shown growing confidence at free safety and has two interceptions, including a 55-yard pick six two weeks ago against Gaithersburg in the final regular season game. “I had to step up and make big plays for the team,” said Baltimore.
Sophomore Demeioun Robinson has seen increasing action at linebacker and made numerous tackles against RM. “I had to work hard, show Coach Kelley he could put his trust in me,” he said.
For senior linebacker/safety and University of Delaware commit Aaron Green, the playoffs mean it’s time to ramp up his intensity.
“It’s playoff time,” Green said. “You got to turn it up and go well beyond if you want to go to states. That’s what I was doing,” he said in explaining his aggressive outing against RM.
Kelley believes his team has the right attitude for Friday’s contest. “This team is super, super competitive. … They like to compete. So, we’ll have a chance to compete.”
Nor will he allow himself—or his players—to feel overconfident because of the one-sided outcome of their regular season match with the Jaguars. “I couldn’t care less what the score was the first time we played them. … It doesn’t mean anything to me.”
With the Cougars determined to return to states to avenge their consecutive defeats, one can sense their single-mindedness.
“When we do our jobs, results happen,” said senior defensive lineman Kevon Carter.
“We have a whole different drive for it,” added Bell.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Cougar Dome. However, last week’s home game was moved to Gaithersburg because of unplayable field conditions at QO. Check the QO Athletics website for updates on the location.