FREDERICK — Toting his black and red equipment bag as he slowly walked off Oakdale High School’s athletic field, Linganore football coach Rick Conner issued a blunt assessment of where his team stood after a second straight humiliating defeat.
We’re not good at this juncture, the longtime coach firmly said, who tells it frank without any sugar coating.
Things were far from ideal then, as Conner packed up shop in the aftermath of a 21-point loss at Oakdale. To make matters worse, playmaker and running back Zamarre Snowden had suffered a gruesome leg injury and later underwent three surgeries. A week before that, Walkersville blew them out on their own turf by 30. Granted those losses came to two of the best in the state, Conner used them as models of where his Lancers needed to be. And even in the midst of that dispirited time just seven weeks ago, when they needed to do some housekeeping for a shot at a playoff berth, Conner prophesied things will be fixed.
On Friday night, through the trials and tribulations, the taxing hours of practice and film study, everything and anything to right the ship, Conner and the Lancers basked in their seventh straight triumph, a 51-14 railroading over guest Oxon Hill that sends them full blast into the MPSSAA 3A state title game in Annapolis next Thursday night.
“Every year, there’s a point in the season where you have to trust the kids and give it to them,” Conner said. “And these guys have taken that and run with it. You saw that tonight.”
In between Weeks 6 and 7 – after the 29-8 loss to Oakdale and before their soon-to-be launch pad at Kennedy – Conner gathered the program into one proximity. The message was quite simple: Bolster confidence against a hapless opponent so you can bottle it into the decisive pit with intra-county foe Middletown. They trounced Kennedy, 48-0, and against Middletown, they discovered newfound hope in a 29-26 win. It’s been off to the races since.
“We had so many people working and grinding,” Conner said. “We had so many kids step up. … We’re developing a certain level of toughness and emotional toughness that you have to have to play in Week 14.”
In the dominant state semifinal victory, everybody contributed. Junior quarterback Ryan Leyh – appearing as poised as ever – threw for 198 yards and a touchdown, and ran for 16 yards and a score in the first half alone. Feature back Davon Butler led a put-away rushing attack with 180 total yards and three touchdowns. Joey Felton, who makes a strong case as the fastest dude in Maryland, amassed nearly 270 all-purpose yards and a touchdown. Nick Albano, the undervalued 5-foot-9 defensive back, intercepted two high-leverage passes and registered the game-sealing blocked punt. Three more Lancers registered interceptions of their own. Sophomore Ben Musselman, who assumed the backup ball carrier role after Snowden’s injury, rushed for over 100 and added a pair of scores. In the final minutes, a host of junior varsity call-ups mopped up a night Felton termed as the best-rounded game all year.
“Oh yes. Fired on all cylinders,” Felton said. “We just kept with it.”
The Clippers took the game’s opening drive to the Lancers’ 25-yard-line, but on third-and-long, quarterback DeJuan Rollins tried to thread the needle to Penn State commit Daniel George where Linganore safety Zach Willett snuffed out a Clippers score with an interception.
Both of Linganore’s first two touchdown’s – a 7-yard boot by Leyh across the left pylon and 2-yard plunge by Butler – were countered with 69-yard and 71-yard scoring bombs from Rollins to George. But after the game was knotted at 14-14 at the 11 minute mark in the second quarter, Linganore was off to the races.
Felton returned the ensuing kickoff 65 yards, and six plays later, Musselman scored his first of two touchdowns on a 13-yard scamper around the left side. After an Oxon Hill three-and-out, Leyh uncorked a 73-yard scoring heave to Felton, who then made it 28-14. On the following Oxon Hill drive, Rollins launched a deep pass to George, only to get picked off by Albano. Minutes later, Butler dusted off three defenders for a 15-yard score that made it 35-14.
Before the first half expired, Nick Pauley’s interception led to a 32-yard field goal by Bennett Formulak.
Butler, off an interception by Joe Kolick, swelled the lead to 44-14 with a 6-yard run and with six minutes to go in regulation, after Albano’s blocked punt, Musselman ignited the running clock with a 15-yard score.
Not long after that, players spilled onto the field and celebrated. “It’s incredibly rewarding, incredibly satisfying,” said Conner, who will face the winner of Milford Mill-Long Reach at the Naval Academy next Thursday.
Conner himself enjoyed the moment, flailing his arms to the guy in charge of the sound system, which blared Montgomery Gentry’s My Town, and yelled, “Crank that [expletive] up! Crank it up!”
After a heartfelt post-game speech, the Maryland football hall of famer hugged and lauded many players as they trotted off the field – this time in jubilation. But no encounter was as emotional as Conner’s deep embrace with Albano, both exchanging muffled words and tears. “It’s special,” said Albano, a senior who’s been largely overlooked his entire life, but a player Conner has always had affection for. In that special moment, with a player on his last ride with his beloved coach, captured why Conner handed the keys over to the seniors when all else failed.
“People don’t understand this: When you’re a senior high school football player, most kids don’t ever put that helmet on again,” Conner said. “They may touch football or flag football. But they’re never putting that helmet on again. And my seniors — my 19 seniors — get to put on their helmet Monday.
“Like I said, we trusted them and gave it to them a while back and have them decide where we’re going to go. And this is what they wanted to do. They want to keep putting that helmet on.”