UPPER MARLBORO – As his players gathered together in the south end zone at Dr. Henry Wise Jr. High School, Frederick Douglass Head Coach Julius Pinkney prepared to speak in front of an upset audience. After reaching the state championships last season, the Eagles outlined the goal of capturing the school’s first state title since 2014.
However, Douglass came to the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) 2A state quarterfinals on Nov. 23 facing a New Town team that matched the Eagles in athletic talent and defensive grit. Unable to convert their five visits in the red zone into any points, the Eagles were forced to watch as the Titans score the game’s only points via a field goal to end their chances at a perfect season vanish
So, as his players cried tears of disappointment, Pinkney could only say one thing to his players: “We came up short.”
The Ownings Mills-based team frustrated Douglass offensively all game to come away with a 3-0 win to eliminate the top-seeded team in the 2A conference. Coming into the quarterfinal game, New Town Head Coach Mike Savage said the focus for his defense was to contain junior quarterback Devin Harding by using one defender as a spy while limiting the effectiveness of Douglass’ running backs and wide receivers.
“They remind me of my team, a lot of athletes everywhere,” Savage said. “And it is very hard to stop a team like that but that quarterback; he’s a playmaker, a difference-maker like Lamar Jackson… So we just tried to contain him with speed versus speed.”
New Town’s plan worked perfectly in the red zone, where the Eagles were 0 for 5 in the red zone for the whole game including overtime. While Harding dealt with a turf toe and ankle injury and other players nursed other ailments, Pinkney said the team was fully healthy to compete and should have gotten points on the board each time they were in scoring territory.
“Inside the 5 (yard line), inside the 2, we have to be able to punch it in,” Pinkney said. “I tip my cap to New Town, they played great.”
The Eagles were poised to score first in the first quarter when the special teams unit picked up a loose ball after a botched punt at the 7-yard line. However, Harding was stopped twice as Douglass was forced to turn it over on downs. Before halftime, Douglass once again had a chance to take the lead after their defense forced four straight punts in the first half. However, the Eagles missed a 16-yard field goal, keeping the game scoreless.
In the second possession after halftime, Douglass went on a 14-play drive all the way to the 1-yard line. However, the Titans defense sacked Harding on fourth down, ending another drive without any points.
“They were used to playing option teams,” Harding said. “They played three of them this year but we needed to execute to beat them.”
While struggling to get involved in the whole game offensively, senior Malik Pettaway pounced on a throw by senior Brian Williams in the middle of the field for an interception and ran it back to the 8-yard line. Momentum began to shift to Douglass’ favor once again with less than five minutes remaining to finally score.
“I just knew we had to make a play,” Pettaway said. “It is the last few moments of the game and we needed a play and that’s what I did. After I got that interception, I felt very sure we would score but it did not fall in our hands.”
On three red zone attempts, Douglass was stopped from entering the end zone, with their final attempt being fumbled by Harding at the 1-yard line and recovered by New Town. The Titans proceeded to make one final attempt down the field themselves with time running out. Williams attempted to spike the ball to stop the clock but game officials said the play was executed properly. The error forced a five-second runoff, sending the game to overtime.
On their possession, Douglass went backward, taking a sack, negative yards on a running play and a penalty as they faced a fourth-and-25 situation. Harding scrabbled out the pocket to find running back Horace Harmon open for the catch but he was stopped short at the 5-yard line, opening the door for New Town to win the game.
Three plays later, kicker Samuel Okezie-Imo converted the 12-yard field goal to give the Titans their second consecutive berth into the state semifinals.
“We came into the game humbled and we just kept working and getting better,” New Town running back Zavion Woodard said. “We knew that they are tough but we fought hard and never gave up.”
Pinkney acknowledged that his staff and players will look back at this season as what could have been as a date with county rivals Potomac was waiting for them in the semifinals.
However, despite the tough loss, the Eagles’ head coach said he looks forward to the offseason and working together with the young returning players. With Harding and the majority of the wide receiving core returning for their senior year, plus the addition of players that could not play due to grades, Douglass will be reloading and preparing to win an allusive state title next year.
“We have a good nucleus of guys coming back,” Pinkney said. “We have enough guys on our roster that are ready to step up and give us what we need.”