GAITHERSBURG – As his teammates lined up to head inside for the long bus ride back home to Upper Marlboro, Isaiah Hazel stood to the side alone and tried to keep his emotions in check as he stared into the dark November sky.
The senior wide receiver and defensive back for Dr. Henry A. Wise High School thought about the four-year stretch he was a part of; one that not only allowed him to become a champion but gained him the attention required to become a West Virginia University commit.
“I am grateful to be playing on this team; I’ve been on varsity since my freshman year,” Hazel said. “But today’s performance was not as good as it should have been and it looks like they wanted it more than we did and it showed.”
Wise quickly became a powerhouse in high school football since opening in 2006. Coming into this season, the Pumas had one of the nation’s longest winning streaks and looked poised to win its fourth-straight Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) state championship.
However, Quince Orchard, a team that had fallen victim to Wise’s success twice in the state finals, was ready to dethrone the champions. Behind the rushing tandem of running backs and a forceful defense, Wise fell apart.
By the end of the night, the Pumas’ championship run was over, losing in the semifinals to the Cougars 31-6 on Nov. 23.
The loss was the culmination of an unnatural year for the Pumas. Despite their usual dominance during the regular season, Wise’s 43-game winning streak was snapped by Calvert Hall earlier this year, and the Charles H. Flowers defense tested the Pumas in the regional championship.
Off-the-field, a nine-game schedule cost Wise an opportunity to collect points in the standings to host the state semifinals, forcing the four-time champions to travel to Gaithersburg.
Wise Head Coach DaLawn Parrish voiced his issues with the decision-making process, but praised Quince Orchard for their playmaking abilities, calling it “the real reason” the Pumas lost.
The game did not start well for Wise as they fumbled the opening kickoff, allowing Quince Orchard to recover and scored a 35-yard field goal on the free possession. After forcing Wise to punt on their first drive, the Cougars pounced again, finishing off a 12-play drive with a one-yard touchdown run by sophomore quarterback Brian Plummer.
“Turnovers kill you in these types of games, and they capitalized on every single mistake from the opening kickoff,” Parrish said. “But over time, they did a good job wearing us down, and I cannot say enough about their effort and preparation.”
Wise’s running game proved to be ineffective with running back Brandon Bell only accumulating 15 yards. Quarterback Quinton Williams, who finished 12-of-18 passing for 106 yards, tried to spark the offense with a tight-spiraled 12-yard touchdown pass, between two Cougar defenders, to sophomore Ronald Boddie midway through the second quarter.
However, the Pumas had no answers in stopping Quince Orchard sophomore tailback Marquez Cooper and junior fullback Ryan Jones.
The pair, known as the team’s grinders by Quince Orchard Head Coach John Kelley, tore through the Wise defense with gain. They both combined for 102 rushing yards, with Cooper collecting the most with 59 and a 1-yard score before halftime.
“That is what we do, we run the ball, and we run it hard,” Cooper said. “We went at them and found success. We have worked so hard since the offseason, and it is good to see the payoff on the field.”
After halftime, the Puma defense forced a three-and-out as the county side tried to regain control. However, as the offense began thundering its way down the field, Williams threw a pass into double coverage and was intercepted by defensive back Charles Bell VI. The junior dodged several would-be tacklers to complete a 75-yard touchdown return for Quince Orchard.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, the Cougars put the final nail into Wise’s season as Plummer flung an 11-yard pass into the end zone, finding senior tight end Johnny Hodges to make it 31-6. Wise did not score the whole second half in their four drives which included two punts and a turnover on downs.
“They dissected us,” Parrish said. “They did a good job…and their style of play wore down on us.”
Cougar players celebrated the win on their home field in front of their fans, dedicating the win to Tyler Terry, a former linebacker from last year’s team who died on Feb. 11.
While Kelley stressed that his team now must prepare for the ultimate test in playing for the state title, many, including Cooper wanted to take in the victory over Wise.
“We knew we had to get this win,” Cooper said. “…It was long overdue; they beat us two years in the row already, so we had a lot more to fight for in this game.”
For the Pumas, it is back to drawing board. While 25 seniors will depart, younger talent is already testing the veteran players and will establish themselves as the new generation to bring Wise glory, Hazel said.
“What people don’t know is that our program grew in 15 years,” Parrish said. “One of the things that made us better is stuff like this. Last time Sherwood hammered us in the state semifinals, the next year, we made it to the finals, so you have to grow from these experiences and sometimes, you learn more from a loss than you do from a win.”