ANNAPOLIS – Frederick Douglass High School Head Coach Julius “JC” Pinkney admitted it himself: despite staying optimistic, this year’s squad was supposed to be a retooling year.
With only two returning starters on defense and offense, respectively, and injuries hampering the Eagles since the preseason, the 17-year coaching veteran at least wanted his team to experience playoff intensity, coming into the postseason tournament as one of the biggest underdogs.
Three consecutive postseason wins stunned observers as the Eagles were a game away from winning the school’s first state title since 2014.
“This was slated for us as a down year and this down year has us battling in the state championship game,” Pinkney said.
However, those dreams were quickly washed away by a Fort Hill squad poised to make history. Behind a championship performance by senior Carter Swan and a pulverizing defense, Douglass’ magical run ended, losing in the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) 2A state football title game on Dec. 1, 20-8, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
While the loss ends their enchanting ride through the playoffs this year, Pinkney could only see the positive points during his postgame remarks. The Eagles (8-5), who had the third-lowest point average (4.39) of all the teams in the 1A Class playoffs, were feeling positive after they defeated rivals Fairmont Heights in the regionals and stunned last year’s state champions Dunbar, 20-6, on Nov. 24 to get to the finals.
“If that is a down year, I think we are in pretty good shape, and I like what we have coming back, and I have confidence in everything we are doing in Douglass,” Pinkney said.
“We felt great (coming into the finals),” sophomore quarterback Devin Harding said. “We had a good week in practice, and we felt great about the game plan, and we were ready to come out and play.”
Early on, Douglass had to battle a small deficit after Swan, a five-foot-six, 185-pound fullback, broke two tackles and burst through the middle for a 55-yard run for Fort Hill’s first touchdown.
The Eagles responded on their following possession as Harding launched a 38-yard pass to senior Mark Mason to register the tying touchdown. A converted two-point conversion gave Douglass a small lead late in the first quarter.
Meanwhile, Douglass’ defense that held opponents to 6.6 points a game this year was slowly getting chipped away by Fort Hill’s rushing attack. Four rushers, including Swan and senior quarterback Blake Beal, combined for 222 of the team’s 224 total offensive years for the Sentinels. Beal reclaimed late in the second quarter with a 16-yard rushing score.
Despite Harding connecting with wide receiver Malik Pettaway several times, Douglass could not build more momentum due to Fort Hill’s imposing defense. The unit limited the Eagles to only 48 yards on the ground and caused two turnovers, including intercepting a Harding pass before halftime.
“We knew everything about Douglass,” Swan said. “We watched play after play, film after film; We knew exactly what they were going to run and we were going to stop their run and make them beat us with passes. They passed the ball and got some yards on it but we stopped they run, and we ended up winning.”
Douglass’ offensive struggles continued into the second half with two consecutive three-and-out drives.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Eagles regained some composure and with good field position, began driving down the field. However, an injury to Mason delayed the proceedings for more than 15 minutes as he was removed from the field by a stretcher.
When the action resumed, an attempted play on fourth-down was stopped when Swan, who plays linebacker as well, busted through the offensive line and tackled Harding.
The Sentinels would continue pounding the ball with their rushing attack, but Beal put the final dagger on Douglass’ hearts, finishing off a 10-play drive, running untouched into the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown with three minutes remaining.
Douglass had a chance to go downfield to add points on the board, but cornerback Anthony Smith made a last-second interception with less than 30 seconds in the game to seal Fort Hill’s seventh state title.
Fort Hill won its fifth championship in six years and became the first team to score more than 14 points against Douglass all season.
“For us to grind and take the toughest path to get here, that is what I am most proud of,” Pinkney said. “We just did not have enough gas in the tank at the end to finish it off.”
Next year may present a new challenge for Pinkney and his Eagles as the proposed realignment has them moving up to the 2A class, based on their enrollment numbers.
However, the veteran coach stressed that despite incoming challenges and losing 21 seniors, the return of his core players, including Pettaway and Harding, will keep Douglass battling for titles for years to come.
“I am not going to hang my head down at all because not many people had us in this game in the 14th week of the season,” Pinkney said. “I am not down on our effort, we represented the county well, and I thought we were a good representation of football today and I am really proud of our guys.”