BURTONSVILLE — All the players from the Paint Branch varsity football team huddled in a circle Friday night after their 4A North regional finals loss. The Panthers had just put forth a valiant effort in an attempt to defeat the visiting Howard Lions, the same squad that had eliminated them from the playoffs in 2014. However, undefeated Howard would emerge victorious once again to claim its fourth regional finals victory in as many years by a score of 33-20.
Even though many Paint Branch players were visibly upset, they still put their hands together over an uplifted Panthers helmet and shouted “family.”
“When we say ‘family,’ we mean it,” said Paint Branch head coach Mike Nesmith. “In games like this, so many alumni come back and they’re always around the program. Everybody says ‘family’ but we feel like we live it.”
Perhaps it was that familial bond between the players that helped propel the Panthers to a division title and their best record since 2013.
Paint Branch overcame a slow start against Howard to tie the game at 14 apiece at the half. The Lions defense hassled Panthers junior quarterback Norman Douglas most of the night, forcing him to run to make plays or throw into double coverage.
Sometimes it worked in Paint Branch’s favor. Sometimes it didn’t.
Douglas floated a pass to receiver Ishmael Agbodzah and the junior caught the ball in stride as two Howard defenders trailed him. Agbodzah’s 50-yard touchdown was the spark the Panthers needed to get into an offensive rhythm.
Paint Branch linebacker Durell Nchami recovered a Lions fumble a few minutes later and set the Panthers up deep in Howard territory.
Douglas capitalized and threaded the needle through double coverage and into tight end Jordan Griffin’s arms for a 27-yard touchdown.
After the half, however, it appeared as though the tide turned in Howard’s favor.
The Lions scored on back-to-back possessions and the Panthers found themselves in a 12-point hole. An 80-yard punt return by Lions running back Devin Dawkins silenced the crowd as Dawkins darted past the pylon for his second touchdown of the game.
Douglas then fumbled on a quarterback carry and the ball popped into the arms of Lions linebacker Ben Stephanos, who ran in the opposite direction for a 48-yard score.
The Howard defense continued to pour the pressure on the Panthers, forcing mistakes and broken plays.
Paint Branch’s only score in the second half came in the fourth quarter, when Douglas connected with receiver Max Davis. The junior outran the Lions defenders around him as he raced diagonally down the field for a 16-yard touchdown.
The rest of the half belonged to the Lions. Defensive lineman Jake Wrisk sacked Douglas and Stephanos registered his second turnover of the night to close out the game once and for all.
“Games like this come down to turnovers and special teams. We had multiple turnovers and you can’t make mistakes like that in these types of games,” said Nesmith.
Nesmith acknowledged how several of his players improved over the course of the year.
“From the beginning in August until now, our quarterback has come light-years [from where he was.] He didn’t have his best performance today but he had so many outstanding performances over the course of the year,” he said. “The way he developed, and [running backs] Justin Page and Sam Doku, so many kids got so much better and that’s what I’m really proud of.”
Howard is set to face Wise next week in the state semifinals. Wise has knocked the Lions out of the playoffs the past two years in a row.
‘We take a lot of pride in wanting to be the Howard County champion and also the 4A North regional champion,” said Howard head coach Ross Hannon. “We’re proud to represent the region and move forward. If you want to be the man you have to beat the man and Wise is the man today. There’s no disputing that.”