Monday, March 10, 2014 2:57 PM
Johnny Littlejohn goes to the air to try and catch a pass from Gaston Cooper. Photo by David Wolfe
Published on: Wednesday, November 27, 2013
By Holden Wilen
BURTONSVILLE – Despite trailing by 20 points in the second quarter, the Paint Branch football team fought its way back to a 51-48 victory over Perry Hall and earned its first trip to the Maryland 4A state semifinals.
At first, nothing went Paint Branch’s way and the defense could not catch a break.
On the first play after Paint Branch cut the score to 12-6 in the first quarter, Perry Hall running back Mike Morris Jr. appeared to be taken down by a defender. However, the referees never blew their whistles, and Morris continued running for a 70-yard score. The referees ruled that Morris had fallen on top of the defender and therefore was not down by contact. Perry Hall later scored on a play where a Paint Branch player deflected a pass but the ball still ended up in the receiver Will King’s hands, and he finished off the run with a touchdown.
Meanwhile, on the Paint Branch sideline players were jawing at each other on and the team seemed to be on its way to a meltdown. With 10 minutes and 29 seconds remaining in the second quarter of the 4A North Regional Finals, Paint Branch found itself trailing 26-6.
However, head coach Mike Nesmith rallied his team together and Paint Branch cut Perry Hall’s lead to 33-20 at halftime. During the break, he gave a direct message to the players: We can do this.
“We let them know we are only down two scores, we can work ourselves back and we are capable of scoring points and getting stops,” Nesmith said. “If we do those two things we can work ourselves back into this game and have a chance to win it in the end.”
After trailing 26-6, Paint Branch outscored Perry Hall 45-22, including 31-15 in the second half. The defense set the tone early in the third quarter when Jordan Davis intercepted Perry Hall quarterback Jeff Iweh and took the return deep into Perry Hall territory. Two plays later Paint Branch back Darryl Hill found paydirt with a 5-yard score.
Nesmith then made an aggressive decision when he had the team attempt a surprise onside kick. The gamble paid off, because Paint Branch recovered the ball and finished the ensuing drive with a touchdown.
“We try to be aggressive all year long letting the kids know we are not going to play scared and tentative,” Nesmith said. “We are going to attack, be on the offensive as much as possible. Getting that onside was really big as far as being able to jump up and take the lead so quickly in the second half. “
Paint Branch would eventually take a 41-33 to end the third quarter, but Perry Hall came back to tie the game at 41-41 early in the fourth quarter. Paint Branch answered back with another touchdown, a 1-yard run by quarterback Gaston Cooper, to regain the lead. Perry Hall scored again, however, to knot the game up at 48-48 to set the stage for Cooper to lead his team on a game-winning drive.
Cooper, who finished the game with four touchdowns (two throwing, two running) did just that, leading his team 65 yards and putting his kicker in a position to the win the game with a field goal. Cooper went 5/6 on the drive. The key play came on a 4th and six, when Cooper went to his fellow senior, running back Johnny Littlejohn with a 10-yard pass to pick up the first down.
“I always have trust in Johnny. He is one of my best playmakers and I always have confidence in him,” Cooper said. “We have always worked on having that chemistry so if situations like that ever came up I knew I could just go to him and he would come through for me.”
Finally, with less than a minute remaining Nesmith sent his kicker, junior Sam Stewart out to attempt a 20-yard field goal. Perry Hall coach Keith Robinson called a timeout, and Stewart said it was the first time he has ever been iced.
“I always thought about what it felt like when kickers in the NFL got iced, and it really does suck, but I just came back out like I did the first time and knocked it through,” Stewart said.
Stewart calmly knocked the ball through the uprights to give his team the lead. After the defense stopped a desperate, Hail Mary attempt by Perry Hall, Paint Branch found itself a winner and on its way to the school’s first state semifinal appearance where it will face another Montgomery County opponent, Northwest High School.
“We worked hard. The whole offseason we did not take one day off, everyone was working,” Stewart said. “We were thinking about this every day we were working and here we are. Hard work pays off.”