Say what you want about Fort Hill — its one-dimensional style taking on a usually vanilla schedule in Maryland’s lowest classification — they flat out get it done with the ultimate gridiron formula: Smashmouth football backboned by a masterful coaching staff and rich culture with an unwavering fan base.
This fall, the Sentinels gun for their fifth — yes, fifth — state title in a row. The feat would set them apart from a tie with Urbana, which won four straight titles from 1998-2001. But for the first time in their championship reign, they’ll be without a Division I playmaker to fall back on in moments of desperation. In 2013 and 2014, it was current University of Maryland running back Ty Johnson. In 2015 and 2016, it was Brayden Brown, who is now off at Connecticut. Fort Hill doesn’t have that, “Hey, we’re in trouble, here’s the ball and get us out of a bind” kind of guy. People, including myself, tend to write them quickly because of that. Then you rethink your logic and glance at the other contenders in Class 1A and wonder why you ever thought about detaching Big Red from the title picture.
It’s no secret: Fort Hill should be considered as the favorite to win it all once again, even without a Division I playmaker and three-year starting quarterback Nathaniel Graves and three-year running back Raen Smith.
A 1A school can only do so much with its schedule, but this year’s track for the Sentinels has a new pair of tests. Friendship Collegiate Academy (D.C.) — a consistently successful team out of the Nation’s Capital — and Melbourne Central Catholic (Fla.) — a forceful program ranked in the nation’s top 400 by MaxPreps — should provide two measuring-stick pinpoints on where the back-to-back-to-back-to-back Class 1A state champions position themselves, in terms of stock, in the 2017 state title race.
We won’t truly know that answer until Weeks 7 and 8, when they travel to FCA in D.C. and host Melbourne. And then two weeks later — Week 10 — it’s a pit against region foe, cross-town nemesis Allegany, which could very well determine supremacy in the West and possibly even Class 1A. But for the time being, all we can do is sit back and analyze.
Troy Banks III, who ran for 189 yards and four touchdowns in the 35-14 win over Havre de Grace in the 2016 Class 1A state title game, returns in the backfield behind a beefy offensive line that’s an average of 6-foot-4, 255 pounds — Gabriel Logsdon (6-8, 253), Trey Bishop (6-7, 258), Colten Wilheim (6-2, 291), Conner Brode (6-4, 228) and RaShaan Haines (5-8, 246). For perspective, and this is by no means comparing, DeMatha’s average height up front is 6-3.
— Fort Hill Sentinels (@FH_Football) July 25, 2017
Kaleb Harden, a 6-3, 248-pound tight end and defensive end who went to Shepherd (W.Va.) and West Virginia University’s college prospect camps, fortifies the offensive front and adds to a stout defense. Luke Hamilton (6-1, 227), who holds an offer from Navy, and Brayden Poling, who racked up 114 total tackles in 2016, spearhead one of the best linebacking corps in the state. The two accounted for 222 total tackles and 31 sacks (Poling 18, Hamilton 13) last fall.
While Fort Hill doesn’t open up the playbook much, Logan Johnson is under center and has Harden as a receiving threat.
Yet again, the pieces are all there for the Sentinels to achieve the illustrious five-peat. Though the target bulges larger than ever — with teams like Allegany, Douglass-PG, Dunbar, Havre de Grace and Lackey eager to hunt them down — Coach Todd Appel’s practice of faith and Gospel teachings within the program customarily eases the burden.
It’s too early to indicate whether the lack of a Division I playmaker will put a damper on their offensive rhythm. If Week 1 is any indication on the state of the offense — a 75-6 spanking of Pittsburgh’s USO — things are mighty fine up in the Queen City.
— Fort Hill Sentinels (@FH_Football) June 22, 2017
It’s worth another reminder that they rely on grit rather than flash. Good ole’ country boys who line up in a three-point stance and maul over opposing trenches. They don’t call them Big Red for nothing, or that their wins are sizeable and everything in Fort Hill country is cherry red. Big Red — under the direction of Appel — is Big Red. No outside transfers nor gimmicks. Just faith, culture and smashmouth football.
Class 1A challengers
Allegany (West) — Elisha Llewellyn (5-10, 165) and Karson Robinette (6-0, 192) will head a ground-and-pound attack in 2017. In the opening 49-42 win over Dunbar, the Campers rushed for 416 yards on 63 carries. They only passed the ball four times. So, based off Week 1, they’ll run the ball over 90 percent of the time. Robinette, who accumulated 166 total tackles last year in Allegany’s 9-2 season (both losses came to Fort Hill), leads the defense.
Dunbar (North) — After sticking with Walkersville, the eventual Class 2A state champions, the semifinal game last fall before falling, 12-7, the Poets return to Class 1A with a host of impact players back in the mix, including starting quarterback Jared Lewis (192 yards per game, 61 percent of passes completed, 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions; 363 yards and four touchdowns on the ground in 2016).
Douglass-PG (South) — Like Dunbar, Douglass-PG moves back down to its stomping grounds in Class 1A to challenge Fort Hill. The Eagles return nine starters, including dynamic quarterback Ja’Juan Payton-Glover (810 total yards, 10 total touchdowns in 2016) and ball carrier. On defense, leading-tackler Makye Smith (63 tackles, 4.5 sacks and cornerbacks Devin Taylor (four interceptions) and Isaiah Jordan (37 tackles, two interceptions) are back in the fold.
Lackey (South) — The Chargers dump down a classification in 2017 and return 11 total starters from an 8-3 season last fall. Quarterback Robert Middleton returns for his junior season along with four of five starting offensive linemen and leading receivers Myles Ingram and James Wilkerson. The only downfall is they lost three Division I players, including running back and 2,000-yard rusher Malik Burns.
Havre de Grace (East) — You’d have to imagine the Warriors are the favorites out of the East region. But if they want to make it back to the title game, they’ll have to do it with starting quarterback Mike Flosser.